I think you raise a very good point.
While I still feel that digital information is vastly superior to analog counterparts like paper in most respects, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t drawbacks – often serious drawbacks – with storing information digitally.
And one of those drawbacks is progress.
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When it comes to digital information, what we’re concerned about over time is how that information is stored.
The most obvious are the issues you raise: physical formats. I do, indeed, have a couple of backup tapes that I no longer have a drive for. My first floppy disk was an 8″ drive. My first “storage medium” was punch cards.
Getting data off of those formats today would represent a challenge.
There’s no reason to believe that any of the successors to those formats will last forever either. 8″ disks became 5-1/4″ which became 3-1/2″, which is today almost unheard of. While the USB interface is backwards-compatible so you can still connect that USB 1.0 drive from a decade or more ago, that’s unlikely to last forever. Even internal hard drives have gone through some transitions. I expect that older IDE/PATA drives may simply not work any more in newer machines, giving way to the faster SATA interface – which itself has gone through a few revisions.
As I often say, change is constant. Evolution is continuous. It’s unlikely you’ll see any of today’s hardware on computers of the next century.
But there’s actually another level to the issue of future compatibility, and that’s the digital format of the file.
Even today proprietary file formats can fall by the wayside. A file saved in a custom format by an application that stopped working with the advent of, say, Windows XP, is for all practical purposes inaccessible today on a newer system.1
There are certain file formats that we might assume will last longer than others, PDF and .jpeg being good examples, but ultimately will today’s “.docx” files be able to be opened by Word 2076? Maybe. Hopefully. How about the latest CAD program? Other graphics files? Databases? Games?
Maybe. Maybe not.
Another problem we face is that physical media degrades over time. Magnetic material slowly demagnetizes. Optical media like writable CDs and DVDs oxidize. Even paper can suffer from mold and decay if not stored properly.
The big question is “how long do they last?”. The answer is: it depends.
It depends on the quality of the media, the quality of the writing instrument, and the environment in which it’s stored. A sealed hard drive, for example, I would expect to last for many decades if not used. Floppy disks, not nearly as long. Archival CDs? I’ve yet to encounter a hard failure as I move data stored on CDs that are upwards of 20 years old.
And yet some experts say we should expect as little as 5 years from optical media.
And yes, being reminded of this has spurred me to take action. I’ve resumed a project where I’m copying hundreds of archive and backup CDs to hard drive storage (which in turn is backed up).
While I can.
That’s where at least part of the solution lies.
Copy those floppies. Duplicate those discs. Transfer those tapes.
While you can.
The problem, of course, is that we can’t predict the storage medium of the future. But we can copy what we have today. In fact that’s one of the things that makes digital storage so appealing – assuming the media is intact it can be easily copied an infinite number of times with zero loss in quality or fidelity.
So, that’s what we need to do.
Migrate the data on those floppies, discs and other older storage media to newer media.
The good news is that besides being faster, newer media – like hard drives – are often significantly larger than the media we’re copying from. In my case those hundreds of CDs will in all probability take up only a fraction of the hard disk space I have available.
And then, of course, back everything up. Putting everything on a single hard drive means you can lose it all at once. But, as I’ve said, data is easily copied – so copy it. In my case I copy to another hard drive on another machine.
Depending on the importance of the data you might also consider an archive copy in the cloud.
It’s conceptually very simple
Honestly, all we’re talking about here is another form of backing up.
If the data is in only one place, then it’s not backed up.
If the data is in only one place, and that one place is aging or soon-to-be obsolete media then absolutely you’re at extremely high risk of losing it all, forever.
The solution is simple.
Back it up.
It’s not really a new problem
Paper can last a long time, but it’s notoriously difficult to back up. Imagine the manuscripts and documents that have been lost to the ages forever because of a fire, water, or even intentional destruction. I, for one, wish that the Library at Alexandria had been backed up, and mourn what was lost when it was destroyed.
The movie and film industry is fighting something that more closely parallels our digital issues as they scramble to save and transfer movies on degrading cellulose film before they’re also lost forever.
In most of these cases digital storage is, in fact, the solution. Once digitized, movies or just about anything can be quickly and easily replicated so data loss need never happen again. In particular, as physical storage formats change over time, that replication can be from old to new media as well. Just as I copy my archival CDs to my hard disk today, presumably that hard disk could someday be copied to its future technological replacement.
The future of file formats
File formats remain a problem, but only to a certain degree.
For example, I fully expect that computers of the 22nd century and beyond will be able to read PDF files. Why? Pragmatically it’s become such a ubiquitous file format today that I can’t imagine that at least future historians won’t be able to readily access it. Will the average computer user? That’s unclear, but I’m confident that someone will be able to convert them to the 22nd century’s equivalent.
Less popular digital formats have a less certain future.
But here’s the good news: as long as the digital bits have been preserved, the data is not lost.
Yes, some future historian or hobbyist might also be charged with re-implementing or reverse-engineering 22nd century code to interpret an obscure file format, but almost by definition it can and could be done.
It’s just a matter of time, cost and priority.