Friday, September 12, 2008

The Question of Digital Durability

As technology enhances our ability to observe and obtain new observations and information, we have an increasing amount of information to store and organize. Fortunately, technology has also developed digital forms of storage that can save large amounts of information in small areas. All of our collective knowledge and information needs to be stored and organized in an accessible manner, because the only way for us to move forward in our thinking and knowledge is to work from the knowledge and information that has previously been developed. For this reason the storage and preservation of our collective knowledge and information is of the utmost importance. Since we now develop such vast amounts of information on a daily basis, digital libraries, archives, and databases have become tools both popular and necessary for the purpose of preserving our knowledge and information. However, there remains one important and nagging doubt in my mind about all this digital storage. Durability. Will these methods of storing data last and be accessible in the distant future? Not being an expert on the subject, perhaps I am missing some vital information myself. Regardless, it seems to me that there is the very real danger of losing vast amounts of information to the detriment of our future progress.
In the past, humans have generally stored useful information on very tangible things: stone, wood, clay, and paper. Sometimes these pieces were lost but subsequently dug up by people thousands of years later. The information stored on these relics could generally be retrieved whether through vigorous research or simply by reading it. The information stored on these tangible objects remained accessible to us and have been proven useful in understanding past civilizations and the human species itself. What would happen if we stored some vital or interesting piece of information digitally on a CD or on a USB flash drive and then lost it. If found by someone in the future, would the information that was stored be accessible to future generations?
Information that is stored digitally is stored merely as 1’s or 0’s on some sort of digital storage device, whether it be a CR, a DVD, a hard drive, or a flash drive. Depending on the storage device and depending on what type of information is stored (text, music, pictures, video, etc.), one needs a certain piece of hardware with specific software to retrieve the stored information and render it into something that means something to the human brain. This method of storing information seems very specific to both the hardware and software being used to store it. If one does not have the correct combination of hardware and software, is the information stored in a digital format transformed into a meaningless sequence of 1’s and 0’s? And if true, isn’t that information in effect lost to future generations? Of course, all of this ignores the fact that many digital storage mediums don’t actually last long anyway. It is said that certain magnetic storage devices last “years, even decades, before deteriorating” (Stair, Ralph M., and Kenneth Baldauf. 2008. Succeeding with Technology: Computer Concepts for Real Life. 3rd Edition. Boston, MA: Thomson Course Technology. p.79). Decades?! A few decades is a mere blink of an eye in the grad scheme of things. Storage mediums that deteriorate after a few decades are not durable storage mediums.
All of this seems to suggest that now on top of storing all the vast amounts of new information that being developed, we also need to constantly resave or restore all the old information from the past. This may mean simply resaving it in the same medium; however, since technology keeps advancing at such a fast pace, this probably means restoring and moving old information onto new storage mediums. This process of restoring and restoring and restoring this information seems to increase the likelihood of possibly losing some information. Once something is left behind, it may rather quickly be difficult or even impossible to access the information digitally stored since our technology rapidly develops new hardware and software. To me, this situation seems to make it alarmingly possible to lose large quantities of important data; however, as I stated before, I may be missing something here.

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