Thursday, July 11, 2002

On Permanence

Read an article linked on Slashdot recently about the long-term deficiencies of most all digital storage methods, and started considering my own life's wake through the ocean of information.

On the one hand we have the paper records I generate: official documents, bills, statements and the occasional tangible letter or card I get mailed. Pretty heavy on side of the bills, actually -- if not for the possibility of a tax audit, I'd just as soon use the stuff to heat my apartment a la Dilbert. Dead weight, mostly, and as interesting as curling up with a copy of the tax code.

On the other hand we have the ephemeral, optically-or-magnetically-stored rest of my life -- the code I write, e-mails I type, diary entries across several machines, bank account balances, credit ratings, traffic tickets, videogame saves, TiVo shows, CDs and CD-ROMs I've bought or burned; i.e., the (relatively) interesting stuff. The article above makes the good point that the typical consumer hard drive comes with a single year's warranty; I've only had a hard disk fail on me once (and that slowly enough to copy everything important off before anything was lost), but that probably means I'm due.

CD-ROMs aren't much better: the typical compact disc (outside of a climate-controlled vault, anyway) can be expected to experience nontrivial problems with chemical degradation (pitting, "bit rot", etc.) inside of a single decade, and I've heard of late that problems with delamination (the layers of a CD separating from one another due to solvent breakdown) are much worse than originally forecast. There are many promises being made with regard to holographic and/or crystalline storage, but as yet none have come to market. There's been a suggestion or two made that we just encode everything in XML (standardized plaintext) and print it all to microfiche (which someone said is expected to last for centuries[?!?]), and then OCR-scan it when needed, but that seems pretty darn inefficient.

On the gripping hand (Pournelle reference!), I've still got files from 1990 or so --over a decade old-- on my current machine's hard disk. Here's the catch, and the possible saving grace of digital media: it's not the hard disk upon which the files were originally written. The files are all perfect copies of the originals, but God only knows where the HDDs I was using in 1992 are today. I certainly don't know, or care. The few web pages I have out there (most notably this blog) aren't really my problem to back up, though I certainly could snag an archival backup if I felt like it. The arms-race obsolescence curve of the computer hardware industry (combined with my geeky need to remain near its leading edge) has introduced enough redundancy into my digital existence that I haven't lost a single personal e-mail from my home system since I started keeping them in 1993.

None of this addresses the question of how much of this junk actually merits saving, or what happens five years after my stuff stops getting copied from machine to machine, but for now my infosystem works. :-)


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