Friday, July 2, 2010

Interlude Four: Digital Evanescence


An Englishman, an American, and an Italian are sitting in a bar. The Englishman says, “They dug down 30 feet near Bristol and found very old copper telegraph wires.”
 “So?” says the American.
 “This is proof that we, the English, were the first to invent the telegraph.”
“In that case,” the American retorts, “you should know that during the excavation of a new subway line in New York they found rusted telephone wiring. It definitely proves that the telephone was invented in the good ol’ US of A!”
The Italian who up to this point had been quietly drinking his Cinzano retorts, “That’s nothing! We Italians dug a hole 40 feet deep next to the Tower of Pisa, and guess what we found. . .?”  He pauses, smiling mysteriously.
“OK. Do illuminate us.” Says the Englishman after the continued silence suggested the Italian’s question was not meant to be rhetorical.
“We found nooothing!” answers the Italian in a very excited tone.
After a shocked moment of silence, the American asks, “So?  What does that prove?”
Beaming with pride, the Italian says, “It proves that we Italians were the first to invent the wireless phone!”
Technology is a funny thing. The more pervasive and embedded it is in the fabric of our society, the more invisible it becomes.  This is actually a nice feature (I can envision a future where cell phones and computers will be embedded in our bodies), but the problem with invisibility is that it lacks solidity; it is evanescent.
It appears that writing developed about five thousand years ago when, according to Wikipedia, a set of discovered cuneiform Sumerian tablets represented the oldest known record of man’s writing. Predictably, most of the deciphered Sumerian tablets deal with business transactions such as payments for goods, accounting records and the like (religious writings including the Old Testament, the Indian Vedas, and the Pyramid Egyptian texts came later).  Obviously, most of what we know about the history of humanity comes from the ever increasing access we have to written history, whether the material is from scrolls, stones, or books. Even if much knowledge has been lost as a result of the destruction of 40,000 books after the Library of Alexandria was set on fire, or as a result of the Spaniards’ destruction of thousands of Mayan and Aztec scrolls, we are fortunate that some written historical records have been preserved.  The analog nature of our written legacy enables the archeologists to quickly recognize written text in any language for what it is, even if they are unable to immediately decipher their findings. 
Now think forward to a time in the future, say one thousand years from now. Will future archeologists be able to recognize the remnants of a CD or USB stick as something containing valuable information from our time? Taking into account the difficulty involved in translating the cuneiform of the Sumerian Tablets, how difficult will it be in the future to access the contents of an iPad tablet?
You may think that my concern is unfounded, but I still have a couple of old 8 ¼ inch floppy disks that contain information from some of my earlier computer jobs.  I should also mention the stack of punch cards I keep somewhere in my basement! I know the cards contain code I’ve written years ago (assembler) because I can visually decode the old EBCDIC encoding in the perforations, but who knows what I have stored on those floppies?
My point is this: Can we guarantee that in the future humans will be able to access and decode the information we’re storing so casually in digital form?  Digital information is intrinsically evanescent and unrecognizable. And nowadays, digital information can be anything: pictures, sounds, books.
 In my closet I have a compendium of ten or so photograph albums that contain photos from my childhood to. . .  er, a period in the mid nineties. At that time, I began to use a digital camera I had won in an expo raffle (business card on the bowl, it happens!). Problem is that that primitive camera captured the pictures in a format that I can no longer decipher and so I have no way of viewing those photos.  Anyway, this is probably not a great loss—the picture resolution back then was less than one megapixel.  To be fair, if you take a look at your old paper photos, you will probably notice that many prints are now suffering from discoloration and are fading under the weight of the years. Keeping stuff on paper is no assurance of permanence.
Naturally, today I have gigabytes of snapshots taken over the last ten years, images I never took the trouble to print and which will never be placed in an actual physical photo album. Now, digitally storing your pictures is both a blessing and a curse. Photoshop’s miraculous ability to remove wrinkles aside, the blessing is that, provided you judiciously back up your data, you will be able to keep and share your pictures indefinitely. The curse is that it is now so easy to take thousands upon thousands of pictures that it’s become more cumbersome to actually enjoy them. (This is similar to the Video-camera phenomena of the eighties when thousands of hours of video recording of your children running and jumping around mindlessly couldn’t be realistically watched.  Not enough time or patience.)
But I digress . . .  the main problem with digitally stored information such as pictures is that it can so easily become unreadable due to changes in technology or to its disappearance.  True, Internet based photographic libraries like Picassa, Webshots, and others can store tons of family albums, but do so under specific commercial restrictions. This is especially true if you, like most, use those services under the “free” subscription model.
Digital information stored on old media may become inaccessible forever and, in time, our current media will be superseded by new technology as well. I would suggest that what’s needed is an organization, international like UNESCO, or domestic like the US Library of Congress, to take responsibility for the storage and permanent accessibility of all the digital content being created. This would mean preserving the detailed knowledge of encoding standards used across all times and media; along with the preservation of equipment capable of quickly accessing this content.
This content is, after all, not unlike the Egyptian papyruses of yore, for it will likely be judged as the patrimony of humanity in the years to come.