Are You Ready for the Digital Dark Age?

Data Storage and the Digital Dark Age

“Back when information was hard to copy people valued the copies and took care of them. Now, copies are so common as to be considered worthless, and very little attention is given to preserving them over the long term. “(Brandt, 2003)

—-Danny Hillis

It is a valid concern as to whether there is enough storage space, but focusing only on space, and not on retrievability, let alone what problems are in fathoming the relationship of the various data, can overshadow what the implications, both good and bad, of having so much data with which to deal.

More and more people and groups such as the Internet Archive are discussing the potential vacuum of  historical photos and digital materials from this era  because of rapidly changing technologies and lack of process for saving these treasures, but on the individual level we would argue the gap is going to be even greater. The Internet Archive is a 501(c)(3) non-profit that was founded to build an Internet library. Its purposes include offering permanent access for researchers, historians, scholars, people with disabilities, and the general public to historical collections that exist in digital format. This is great but is it enough?

Personally, I have started retrieving and scanning photos which I found in my moms basement and photos such as the one below of my Aunt and Frank “Pistol Pete: Eaton (the real life character behind the Oklahoma State University mascot “Pistol Pete”.   One of the treats in getting to sort through boxes and boxes of photos, letters and cards is finding treats such as this one.

Experts in the Dark?

“The very significant downside to this change in process is not something any of us will immediately recognize. we’ll just notice, thirty years from now, that we won’t have anything to casually leaf through and remember the important bits”(Grey, 2010)

Max Gerber

Digital preservation is defined as the maintenance of digitally stored information. This is different from digitization which is the process of creating digital information. Digital librarians, archivists, and related experts use the following methods to preserve digital content:

Data migration: this is the transfer of data to newer systems. Through this process experts ensure continual access to digital content despite ever-changing technologies and formats (Breeding, 2012).

Data refreshing:  it is a fact that digital data will degrade over time. One way to combat this phenomenon is to transfer or copy the data from one storage medium to another. Through this process the data lifespan is increased (Groenewald and Breytenbach, 2011).

Data emulation: this process allows older digital artifacts to be accessed from newer computers. Emulation focuses on the application software as a solution and seeks to develop software that can still access older digital artifacts (Besser, 2007).

Data replication: digital information that exists in only one location could be lost if there is a hardware or software failure. To guard against this threat of data loss experts in digital perseveration will typically back-up digital content in several locations (Thomas, 2000).

For at least a decade digital librarians and other archival specialists have struggled with digital preservation.  For example, Harvey (2012) identifies four challenges facing any digital preservation expert: changing from intermittent to continuous preservation practices, continuous professional development of experts, development of “best practices” that are applicable to anyone, and funding. The importance of this last point cannot be overstated.

The sad reality for digital preservation experts is that we are not living in a Star Trek utopia. Educational institutions, organizations and experts typically do not provide services without accounting for cost. Infrastructure, staffing, and continual upgrades of both are not free. Digital preservation practices are not a one-time cost and require continuous funding. Unfortunately even the “experts” are often underfunded, lack training or lack the manpower to consistently preserve digital artifacts. If the expert faces these challenges then what can we realistically expect of the average person?

Which brings us to a great paradox of the digital universe:  As our ability to store digital bits increases, our ability to store them over time decreases.  Think about this, the Dead Sea Scrolls, thousands of years old, are made of animal skins, papyrus and one of copper  are thousands of years old( 25 Interesting Facts)  There are many instances of clay tablets thousands of years old,  photographs and microfilm a hundred years old. But can we read a 8-track tape from 35 years ago, a floppy disk from 20 years  ago, or a VHS tape from 10 years ago?   The life-span of digital recording media is nowhere near as long as stone or paper – the media degrades and the  playback mechanisms become obsolete. The design life of a low cost hard drive is 10 years, USB drives 10 years, the usable lifespan of magnetic tape has been estimated to be as little as 10 years,viii and the life expectancy of CDs and DVDs may be as little as 20 years, while DVD technology is 100 years Keep in mind that DVDs may be worthless not too far into the future. How many people still own Record Players? ZIP drives?(Grey 2010).

In short, the life of stored data follows two conflicting curves: one where capacities go up and one where longevity goes down.  For the moment the solution recommended to digital archivists by the National Media Lab is to transcribe digital records to new media every 10-20 years – a tough assignment for all but the well-organized.

Due to the relentless obsolescence of digital formats and platforms, along with the ten-year life spans of digital storage media such as magnetic tape and CD-ROMs, there has never been a time of such drastic and irretrievable information loss as right now.  I am very excited by some of the things that are happening in the digital world, but I also wonder what it means 10,50 or 100 years from now.   For example one of my favorite companies in the educational realm is Flat World Knowledge.  Their mission per their web page is:  “We are a college textbook publishing company on a mission. By using technology and innovative business models to lower costs, we are increasing access and personalizing learning for college students and faculty worldwide.”  I know as a college administrator we have to do something about rising costs before we price ourselves out of the reach of students and become irrelevant, however a part of me  becomes nostalgic about those textbooks which are in museums, libraries and even my bookshelf.  There is something comforting about holding a book, even a crummy ol’ textbook, in your hand.  The images below are from a well hidden secret part of my academic life…I have about a dozen graduate hours in taxation.  Yep I agree yuck!

I kept this book, which I can hold in my hand, because I have never studied one topic ( a graduate class on “Federal Taxation of Corporations” ) so hard and understood so little. Notice the soiled and marked pages. I really did peruse this book more than any other book I have ever had.   I keep it on my shelf and pull it out to remind myself of why I did not go into accounting and it makes me happy when I get a little whiney about not going that route as I assume would have made a whole lot more money  over the course of my career doing that vs. going into education. Do you think I would have access to that reminder if I would have had an eBook for this course?  I don’t know.

The half-life of data is currently about five years. There is no improvement in sight because the attention span of the high-tech industry can only reach as far as next year’s upgrade, and its products reflect that.

The loss is already considerable.  For a long time I had sign on my wall that said, “Things are really going to take off when everyone has dual floppies”  Oh my was that a long time ago and really pretty funny statement for those in the tech field.  However,  you may have noticed that any files you carefully recorded on 5l/4″ floppy disks a few years ago are now unreadable. Not only have those disk drives disappeared, but so have the programs, operating systems, and machines that wrote the files (WordStar in CP/M on a Kaypro?). Your files may be intact, but they are as unrecoverable as if they never existed. The same is true of Landsat satellite data from the 1960s and early 1970s on countless reels of now-unreadable magnetic tape. All of the early pioneer computer work at labs such as MIT Artificial Intelligence is similarly lost, no matter how carefully it was recorded at the time  (Wilson 2005).

The increasing status of social networks as a repository for photos is an ever increasing storage dilemma.   Myspace used to be the biggest social networking space on the web.  The question becomes are there backups or archives of all the photos that people shoot and post immediately to their favorite social networking site. We are a right now people and I am afraid the consequences of losing a piece of our corporate or individual self and or culture is closer to our doorstep than many may think.

Background Reading and References

Arthur, Charles. “What’s a Zettabyte? By 2015, the Internet Will Know, Says Cisco.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 18 June 0029. Web. 01 Oct. 2012. a href=”http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2011/jun/29/zettabyte-data-internet-cisco%3E”>http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2011/jun/29/zettabyte-dat…;.

Brand, Stewart. “Escaping The Digital Dark Age.” Rense.com. Published in Library Journal Vol. 124. Issue 2, P46-49, 20 June 2003. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. a href=”http://www.rense.com/general38/escap.htm%3E”>http://www.rense.com/general38/escap.htm>;.

Besser, H. (2007). Collaboration for electronic preservation. Library Trends, 56(1), 216-229.

Breeding, M. (2012). From disaster recovery to digital preservation. Computers In Libraries, 32(4), 22-25.

Grey, Tim. “Losing Memories to Digital | Tim Grey’s Blog.” Tim Grey – Digital Imaging Expert. Timgrey.com, 23 Mar. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. a href=”http://timgrey.com/blog/2010/losing-memories-to-digital/%3E”>http://timgrey.com/blog/2010/losing-memories-to-digital/>;.

Groenewald, R., & Breytenbach, A. (2011). The use of metadata and preservation methods for continuous access to digital data. Electronic Library, 29(2), 236-248.

Kozierok, Charles. “The TCP/IP Guide – Binary Information and Representation: Bits, Bytes, Nibbles, Octets and Characters.” Welcome to The TCP/IP Guide! Charles Kozierok. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. a href=”http://www.tcpipguide.com/free/t_BinaryInformationandRepresentationBitsBytesNibbles-3.htm%3E”>http://www.tcpipguide.com/free/t_BinaryInformationandRepresentation…;

Harvey, R. (2012). Preserving digital materials, 2nd ed. Berlin: De Gruyter Saur.

Krynsky, Mark. “Wired Article on Lifestreaming Pioneer Gordon Bell.” Lifestream Blog. Wired Magazine, 24 Aug. 2009. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. a href=”http://lifestreamblog.com/wired-article-on-lifestreaming-pioneer-gordon-bell/%3E”>http://lifestreamblog.com/wired-article-on-lifestreaming-pioneer-go…;.

Lawerence, Katerine. “Rethinking the LAMP Stack — Drupal Disruptive Open Source Part 2 | PINGV Creative Blog.” PINGV Creative | Web Strategy • Design • Drupal Development. PINGV, 2 Dec. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. a href=”http://pingv.com/blog/rethinking-the-lamp-stack-disruptive-technology%3E”>http://pingv.com/blog/rethinking-the-lamp-stack-disruptive-technolo…;.

Melvin, Jasmin. “Mobile Device Boom Sparks U.S. Net Address Shortage| Reuters.” Business & Financial News, Breaking US & International News | Reuters.com. Reuters, 28 Sept. 2010. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. a>http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/09/28/us-usa-internet-upgrade-i…

Sutter, John D. “Microsoft Researcher Building ‘e-memory’ – CNN.com.” CNN.com – Breaking News, U.S., World, Weather, Entertainment & Video News. CNN, 24 Oct. 2009. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. a href=”http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/10/24/tech.total.recall.microsoft.bell/index.html?iref=allsearc%3E”>http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/10/24/tech.total.recall.microsoft.bell…;.

Thomas, C. F. (2000). Replication: the forgotten component in digital library interoperability? Technicalities, 20(4), 3-5.

Wilson, Carson. “Longevity of Film versus Digital Images.” Apples & Oranges: How Digital and Film Cameras Differ. CarsonWilson.com, 13 Sept. 2005. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. a href=”http://carsonwilson.com/apples/index.php?/archives/10-Longevity-of-Film-versus-Digital-Images.html%3E”>http://carsonwilson.com/apples/index.php?/archives/10-Longevity-of-…;.

“25 Fascinating Facts About the Dead Sea Scrolls @ Century One Bookstore.” Archaeology | Biblical Studies | Dead Sea Scrolls | Religion | Century One Bookstore. Century One Bookstore. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. <http://www.centuryone.com/25dssfacts.html>

“KB, Mb, GHz, and All of That Stuff.” Coolnerds Home Page. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. a href=”http://www.coolnerds.com/Newbies/kBmBgB/SizeAndSpeed.htm%3E”>http://www.coolnerds.com/Newbies/kBmBgB/SizeAndSpeed.htm>;.

“The Expanding Digital Universe.” EMC. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. a href=”http://www.emc.com/collateral/analyst-reports/expanding-digital-idc-white-paper.pdf%3E”>http://www.emc.com/collateral/analyst-reports/expanding-digital-idc…;.

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