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    Tuesday, January 30, 2007

    The Era that Time Forgot: Will the dawn of the 21st century be lost in cyberspace?

    The problem is both immediately apparent and invisible to the average citizen. It crops up when our hard drive crashes, or our new computer lacks a floppy disk drive, or our online e-mail service goes out of business and takes our correspondence with it. We consider these types of data loss scenarios as personal catastrophes. Writ large, they are symptomatic of a growing crisis. If the software and hardware we use to create and store information are not inherently trustworthy over time, then everything we build using that information is at risk.

    Large government and academic institutions began grappling with the problem of data loss years ago, with little substantive progress to date. Experts in the field agree that if a solution isn't worked out soon, we could end up leaving behind a blank spot in history. "Quite a bit of this period could conceivably be lost," says Jeff Rothenberg, a computer scientist with the Rand Corp. who has studied digital preservation.

    I worry about this now and then. Will the medical records I create today in an electronic format be readable twenty years from now? How about ten? I have recipes from ten years ago that I diligently put on a computer but which are unreadable now, even though the computer I now have is made by the same manufacturer who made the one I used ten years ago. Once they changed the operating system and their word processing program, the recipes were gone. I can no longer blog using my old iBook because Blogger is no longer compatible with its version of Internet Explorer.

    As wonderful as computers and the internet are, they definitely lack a permanency.

    posted by Sydney on 1/30/2007 07:12:00 PM 3 comments


    I have observed that the half-life of information storage has declined over the centuries. Petroglyphs pecked thousands of years ago into basalt here in the Southwest are still quite visible. But compare the life of your precious newspaper clippings with Egyptian papyrus ... or your 8" diskettes (yes, 8") with your newspaper clippings... and you'll see what I mean. Sometimes I fancy that all information storage, from old, old parchment to today's hard drives will all crumble at the same time. Soon. Scary.

    By Blogger Granny J, at 1:47 PM  

    I specialize in recovering information from old systems - usually at least the words/data/pictures, if not the formatting (that is lost unless the original program or equivalent is available) and have to keep 10 to 20 year old computers working to do it. I also recommend keeping paper copies of all important works, because electronic is still even more ephemeral than paper.

    By Blogger jackg0, at 3:48 PM  

    I also keep older operating systems running and available, and still use them regularly. If you still have those old files you can't read anymore, it is still possible to retrieve them.

    One important note. If you are creating files holding information that you deem important, the best way to insure that it'll still be readable years from now is to always save them to plain-text format. You'll lose all of your formatting and font styles, but all of the text will remain intact.

    You can usually find older versions of programs still available on archive sites here and there. It'll take a little work with a good search engine to find them, but they aren't lost forever.

    -- Smoovious

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:14 AM  

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