Sunday, September 17, 2006

Digital immortality is a moral certainty? Ask James Fallows.

He has been writing for The Atlantic Monthly for many years. In the September 2006 issue, in his article, ‘File Not Found’, he argues persuasively that analog beats digital hands down for preserving information over “centuries, millennia, that sort of deep time”. In other words, stone and paper are far safer than bits and bytes. (The sub-title of his article reads: “Why a stone tablet is still better than a hard drive”.) Fallows cites James Belington, Library of Congress’s chief honcho, and a report the latter read. It estimated the quantum of digital information globally generated every 15 minutes to be “equivalent in scale to the contents of all the library’s books”. He also tells us what the Chief said about the best media to preserve information. “The best-preserved data tends to be on stone steles and cuneiform tablets.” Also: “Papyrus, vellum, parchment – all those classical modes hold up pretty well.” Next a story from Chris Weston (Office of Strategic Initiative): “Someone in upstate New York was cleaning out the attic of an old farmhouse—and there was a letter from Benedict Arnold. It had been in a cool, dry place for 200-some years. With most things on paper, unless you throw them away or actively destroy them, they’re likely to stay around.” With digital data, unless one is careful to renew and preserve it, it may simply disappear over time. Clay Shirky, a New York University media scholar, calls the cause ‘Playback Drift: The Silent Killer’, i.e. the tendency of physical devices for storing and retrieving digital data to “succeed one another so quickly that information is in constant jeopardy of being trapped in an obsolete format”. The one sure and simple solution is hard copy back-up. In short, print it, dude. Better still, carve it on a stone tablet. You may also use your imagination and use a 2 GB Gmail account for free online back-up, as Fallows writes. Also, consign some stuff to a blog network which hopefully will work to keep the information safe from the ravages of time and leaps of technology. The point is, immortality can be a moral certainty only if you work for it.

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