Compatibility with future generations
A little while ago I was asked by a group of students from a neighbouring school for advice on the following: they were putting together the contents for a time capsule that they were intending to bury in their school grounds, to be disinterred in 2100. They wanted to include in it a lot of photographs, some shool magazines and some essays. Their intention was to bury this in electronic format, but they were stuck as to what media to use. If they put it all on CDs or DVDs, would these still be readable in 100 years, and indeed would there be the still be hardware that could be used for this purpose? Or should they use a memory stick?
Of course I was quite unable to offer any useful advice. Or rather, I suggested that the only safe thing they could do would be to include it in hard copy, i.e. on paper. I think they may have been disappointed with this advice, as they probably hoped that the president of a technology-savvy university would have some hi tech solution. Perhaps if I had asked my computing colleagues they might have given some advice, but on the whole I suspect we know very little now about what technology will be available in 100 years and whether it will be sufficiently ‘backwards compatible’ to read a DVD from 2009. Paper just seems safest.
But for me that raises all sorts of other issues.Right now one of the great movements in technology applied to the arts and humanities is digitzation – i.e. the conversion of manuscripts, books and art into electronic format. But how durable is this going to be? How can we be sure that what we are digitizing will be in a format that will still work in 2020, never mind 2100. Or are we going to have to reformat all this stuff every few years for the digital repositories to have any functional value? And if so, what about private archives that don’t have curators who can perform this task whenever it is needed?
I am reminded of this because I am the proud possessor of (I think) 38 computer disks in five an a half inch format. They were assembled in 1992. Now, in 2009, they are not exactly unreadable, but it will take an enormous effort to find some equipment that can do that. And what is more, most of the documents on them were created using word processing software called ‘WordStar’ in DOS (if you have no idea what I am talking about, don’t worry, it’s not worth your while finding out). So even if I can find the necessary hardware, I doubt that it will have the software to read the files. In short, the disks are really useless. I am only glad that I didn’t bother transferring them to 3 inch disks when I was contemplating dong that in 1998 – that too would have been a waste, because those disks are more or less also now unreadable. And do you really think you will be able to plug your USB memory stick into anything in 2030? I doubt it.
And so what this makes me wonder is whether the technophobes and Luddites will have the last laugh. Is all the stuff we are now assembling in computer files doomed to be altogether ephemeral? Will the output of this generation, so overwhelmingly stored only electronically, just fade away and remain, untouchable and unreadable, on old computer media in the back of some dusty drawer? Will our era be thought of, in some 1,000 years time, as a dark age from which nothing survived?Explore posts in the same categories: culture, technology comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.