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mrentropy's avatar

Are we impeding the future by using electronic storage mechanisms?

Asked by mrentropy (17188points) February 5th, 2010

We (the collective human race) are usually quite happy when we find written records from past civilizations. It helps us understand what was going on at the time and gives some insight into what the people were like. Even mundane things, such as shopping lists and receipts, can be exciting.

These days we mostly use electronic storage. It gets input on a computer and stored on a server somewhere. Eventually the data may be put on a “permanent” storage medium, such as tape or CD-ROM (or DVD, etc). However, these things are hardly permanent. Indeed, if there were some kind of disaster where an EMP pulse was sent out there’s a chance that a lot of this medium could get destroyed.
How much of a set back would it be for future archeologists if they couldn’t retrieve a lot of this information anymore? I guess encryption of data would also hinder these efforts.

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21 Answers

Sandydog's avatar

This topic was raised in an article I read this week under the headline that all knowledge could be forgotton. Unfortunately I cant remember where I read it !!
I also read elsewhere that some digital data will start to deteriorate after about 20 years. Im no expert on this, but I definitely think that more thought needs to be put into this subject for the sake of future generations.

mrentropy's avatar

This is a bit fanciful but assume for a moment that back in the mists of history we were visited by an alien civilization. They decided to set up shop here for a while and brought their computers and stuff with them, along with generators to power them. They didn’t need a construction crew since humans at the time were able to build buildings, even if they weren’t equipped with modern conveniences.

Then they decide to pack up and leave taking their computers and generators and stuff. The only record we’d have of them being here would be myths and badly drawn pictures that could be explained away as something else.

CMaz's avatar

The “sad” part is. With language in print form, like on stone or paper. The information would be quicker and easier to decipher.

Everything on solid state storage. Would have to wait for a civilization to develop the technology to use the devices. Before the language could be interpreted.

The_Idler's avatar

@mrentropy this is one of the explanations for religion, “miracles” etc. I consider most plausible

mrentropy's avatar

@ChazMaz That’s another consideration. At some point tape, for example, will become obsolete. Future folks will need to re-invent a device to read the tape to get to what’s on it.

Snarp's avatar

The potential exists, but it presupposes a complete collapse of civilization, something there’s really no reason to expect. We certainly need to consider the permanence of digital records, and at this point everything that has been converted to digital for posterity will have to be converted again at some future date. I’m more concerned about proprietary formats. It doesn’t really take that much to figure out how to convert bits to ASCII characters and recreate that, it’s a bit harder to figure out how to convert the data in a PDF or Word document. Encryption, as you suggested, makes that harder bordering on impossible.

The good news is that we still have paper records of lots of important things, and we are now using acid free papers that will last much longer that the paper that existed previously. It would be pretty serious destruction that leaves no record of our existence. In all likelihood we will leave a better record than any of the ancient civilizations left to us.

But yes, there is certainly a threat to certain information, even in the shorter term.

Snarp's avatar

Maybe we need to create something earthbound like the golden record on Voyager. Not only does it contain data, but it also contains a pictographic key to reading the data.

We could engrave a number of items of impervious materials with digital data as well as a key to their format and keys to various common digital formats and store them in places that would be likely to survive a catastrophe and to be found later.

CMaz's avatar

@Snarp – The Golden Record on Voyager was ingenious. Something that will probably be capable of reading and understanding millenniums from now.
Intelligently simple.

Factotum's avatar

Tape degrades very quickly while punchcard reading machines are almost impossible to come by; decades-old records are dying as we speak.

I think, though, that data loss is a gift we give to future generations because honestly we create so much writing and pictures and movies – I wouldn’t want to have to wade through all of that junk.

I think it would be enough if our great-great-great grandchildren had something they could reasonably encompass so that they could understand the wisdom of the past without having to come through everything.

That’s why I am recommending to the Mods that they they allocate space for a Best of Factotum’s Posts, print them out and put them in a time capsule.

The fate of human knowledge is in your hands, guys.

ragingloli's avatar

The great thing is it can be adapted to modern storage technology. Our advances in nanotechnology means we can Increase the data density on the gold disc and coat it with a nano layer of synthetic diamond for durability.
In the future we might even be able to dispense with the gold directly and instead store data 3 dimensionally in a specialised crystalline structure made of diamond.
Then we can store the media in a cave on the moon.

CMaz's avatar

@ragingloli – “Then we can store the media in a cave on the moon.”

SWEET!!! Love that idea!

mrentropy's avatar

@Snarp “The potential exists, but it presupposes a complete collapse of civilization, something there‚Äôs really no reason to expect.”

I was ready to agree with this but then, I thought, if I gave @Snarp a tin foil cylinder with music on it, how long would it take him (her? other?) to be able to find out what was on it? It’s not like you can pick up a cylinder player from Best Buy. That’s a relatively simple thing, though, and it’s not even 200 years old.

But what about something more complicated? Like a JAZ drive? In another hundred years it may be impossible to find a working JAZ drive (hell, with all the problems they had it might be impossible now). The way our storage medium is moving along we may even lose the knowledge of how the information is placed on the disk. If the data is encrypted it may make it that much worse (although if we have quantum computers working on it that may make it easier; or would it still be hard if the encryption method is no longer known?).

I don’t think it needs a collapse of civilization, just an awful lot of time to pass.

But it’s not just mundane things, such as packing lists and legal documents; items that may be stored on acid-free paper in an airtight vault. We’re moving towards an all digital world. Newspapers are losing traction in the physical world, and that’s a huge archeological loss. If they go all digital and don’t have a paper backup, they could be lost forever in a relatively short period of time. If eBook readers really sweep the world then paper books may take a back seat when the next “book of the generation” is written. Would we have Beowulf now if it were stored on a cassette tape? How many other works of literature have been lost because there was no mass production and someone dropped their only papyrus copy in a river?

I suppose then, that’s the real answer. Information cannot be kept forever. Even if engraved in a stone, that stone can be worn down. Or, if we take @ragingloli‘s idea, we can make it permanent (unless the moon is beat up a’la “Thundarr” or it falls into the Earth) even if it’s not readable.

I suppose it’s not any better or any worse than it has been.

The_Idler's avatar

Why not just build a archive planet of all human knowledge on the edge of the galaxy?

mrentropy's avatar

@The_Idler Seems kind of far away.

jerv's avatar

I think we started literally losing our minds after literacy became widespread for similar reasons. The only difference nowadays is information density; I can store a few typewritten pages worth of information in a pocket-sized notebook (the size of a deck of cards) or an entire library worth inside an electronic device the same size.

mattbrowne's avatar

The risk is real. But countermeasures do exist.

The_Idler's avatar

@Dr_Dredd No, I mean, like Terminus, which the Trek obviously just ripped off from asimov.

GREAT book btw, if you like sci-fi, it is a classic and a must-read…

Dr_Dredd's avatar

Ah, the Foundation series. It’s been YEARS since I read any of them!

Toddles off to the nearest used bookstore…

jerv's avatar

@Dr_Dredd The first three were great, but you should just call it quits after the original trilogy unless you like disappointment.

Dr_Dredd's avatar

Asimov tried to tie it in with his “Robot” series, correct? That seemed a bit of a stretch to me.

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