Can Digital Knowledge Be Preserved?

Posted July 24th, 2015 at 3:01 pm (UTC-4)
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Accessories for an original 128K Macintosh computer, including an operating system disk (top R) and a guided tour on a cassette tape (top L) are displayed at the Vintage Mac Museum in Malden, Massachusetts January 18, 2014. (Reuters)

Accessories for an original 128K Macintosh computer, including an operating system disk (top R) and a guided tour on a cassette tape (top L) are displayed at the Vintage Mac Museum in Malden, Massachusetts, Jan.18, 2014. (Reuters)

Two hundred years into the future, descendants of a humanity struck by an unknown catastrophe scavenge for scraps of knowledge that could hold the key to restoring their ancestors’ lost digital past.

This is the story of Jonesbridge: Echoes of Hinterland – the first in a fictional trilogy that offers a “portrait of a society or a world that had to start with much fewer people and much less knowledge – sort of like picking a chunk of their history,” Author M.E. Parker told TECHtonics.

The cover of Jonestown: Echoes of Hinterland. (M.E. Parker)

The cover of Jonesbridge: Echoes of Hinterland. (Diversion Books)

Survivors find much information to help them burn coal for electricity, for example. But the amount of lost digital knowledge, particularly the more sophisticated or closely-guarded proprietary technology, sets them back to a dark age.

Whatever information they find on crumbling, obsolete hardware or software leftovers is inaccessible or possibly alien to them, making it more of a challenge to reassemble the digital puzzles of the past.

“A language, for example, like the Rosetta Stone – we were able to kind of piece together you know, Greek, Egyptian and in-between, based on the Rosetta Stone and some of the linguistic abilities that we had,” said Parker, “But without the software and technology aspect of it, we wouldn’t be able to do that with technology.”

But he acknowledged that it is unlikely that humanity might one day come to face such an event.

“The incredible amount of redundancy that we do have in our online infrastructure currently makes it unlikely that there would be a civilization-altering loss of data, unless … of course for a catastrophic, you know – nuclear war, solar event even that kills a large part of the population with it,” he said. So in that case, it’s sort of a perfect storm.”

It is a speculative scenario. But in the “unlikely” event that a global catastrophe disrupts humanity’s ability to produce and maintain technology and technological infrastructure for more than 150 years, “much or most information that is now available only in digital form will likely be lost,” said Micah Altman, Director of Research and Head/Scientist, Program on Information Science for the MIT Libraries, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

There are several reasons that would account for this loss. One of them is the life span of digital storage media.

“Most media used for digital storage [such as hard drives, solid state devices] are intended for storage for approximately a five-year period,” he said in an email interview. “The information on this media would be unrecoverable after 100 years, even in ideal conditions.”

While some specialized archival digital media are theoretically designed for 100-year storage under controlled conditions, he said “150 years exceeds the expected lifetime of most of these archival digital materials; and the storage conditions induced by a catastrophe would induce rapid degradation.”

Ironically, some analog information might survive. That could include “books and journals printed on acid-free paper, information preserved on “Rosetta disks” – [nickel disks designed for 10000-year storage] – as long as the storage conditions were conducive.”

A computer disk with family tree information lies among rubble on May 26, 2011, in Joplin, Mo., after a tornado tore through much of the city. (AP)

A computer disk with family tree information lies among rubble on May 26, 2011, in Joplin, Mo., after a tornado tore through much of the city. (AP)

Even if some of the recovered archives are intact, hardware availability – or lack of – would present another challenge. So a surviving optical disk, even if intact, would require”specialized hardware” to read it.

An ordinary DVD, for example, requires lasers, VLSI or Very Large Scale Integration – the process of creating an integrated circuit by combining thousands of transistors into a single chip – and “precisely engineered motors” – a “sophisticated technology that generally requires considerable supporting infrastructure to manufacture,” Altman explained.

Then there is the issue of digital obsolescence. Digital information formats, said Altman, are “complex, not human-readable or self-documenting.”

“Without documentation of the formats, software to implement them, and computers to execute the software, the bits retrieved … would be uninterpretable,” he explained.

So if humanity’s technology infrastructure disappears for a 100 years, he said “a whole lot of scientific knowledge, culture, and historical/government record disappears.”

But digital information is easy to replicate, he noted, meaning that a country that escapes the catastrophe and “manages to maintain technical manufacturing infrastructure at [a] small scale” can potentially save “much of the publicly available information.”

The iced-over door to Vault 2 of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, dubbed as Noah's Seed Ark and a Doomsday Vault. The vauls was dug into a mountainside in Norway's arctic Svalbard islands. It will hold 4.5 million different agricultural seed samples from around the world. (AP)

The iced-over door to Vault 2 of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, dubbed as Noah’s Seed Ark and a Doomsday Vault. The vault was dug into a mountainside in Norway’s arctic Svalbard islands. It will hold 4.5 million different agricultural seed samples from around the world. (AP)

The iced-over door to Vault 2 of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, dubbed as Noah’s Seed Ark and a Doomsday Vault. Dug into a mountainside in Norway’s arctic Svalbard islands, the vault will hold 4.5 million agricultural seed samples from around the world. (AP)

The recovery of lost digital knowledge would depend on who survives, what they know,  where they are, and on the scale of the catastrophe. But Jonesbridge is “more a story of humanity … understanding that it … has a capacity to overcome more than it has a capacity to avoid calamity,” said Parker.

He suggested that there might be a way to create a repository to protect accumulated digital knowledge similar to an underground seed vault in Norway that houses millions of species of seeds for crops, trees and plants.

“It would be possible to create some sort of [a] technology vault … that could maintain at least a road map of how to retrieve information from certain basic systems,” he said. “The problem that we face is that the encryption and decryption technology and compression technology are in many cases proprietary to whoever makes it, and they’re protective of it.”

Aida Akl
Aida Akl is a journalist working on VOA's English Webdesk. She has written on a wide range of topics, although her more recent contributions have focused on technology. She has covered both domestic and international events since the mid-1980s as a VOA reporter and international broadcaster.

One response to “Can Digital Knowledge Be Preserved?”

  1. Aaron Terry says:

    Thanks for sharing. To add to this… Have you tried Binfer? It is a secure way to share digital media.

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