When Data Disappears


The picture above is a fair representation of my setup years ago.  Note the high tech mass storage device to the right.  That there is a Sony Superscope C202lp varispeed cassette recorder with sliders to adjust the level in three frequency bands.  

I didn’t have one of those. I had a Radio Shack cassette recorder that looked similar but only had a volume control.  The Kiwi with the above rig had an  advantage.  But note that his BASIC in ROM cartridge is non-functioning. It looks kinda like an 8-track tape cartridge but it’s not.

This is what you get when your elderly hacker uncle leaves you a steamer trunk full of priceless documents on 40-year old tapes.  No matter that your uncle was somewhat obsessive compulsive drinking Mountain Dew into the wee hours morning.  His output may have been just obsolete code or gibbrish. Or, with the exception of the Mountain Dew, these are traits shared by guys named Coleridge (KublaKhan), Rimbaud (The Drunken Boat), and maybe your uncle.  Maybe the family album has been digitized.

When Data Disappears

By KARI KRAUS, Published: August 6, 2011

Kari Kraus is an assistant professor in the College of Information Studies and the English department at the University of Maryland.

LAST spring, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas acquired the papers of Bruce Sterling, a renowned science fiction writer and futurist. But not a single floppy disk or CD-ROM was included among his notes and manuscripts. When pressed to explain why, the prophet of high-tech said digital preservation was doomed to fail. “There are forms of media which are just inherently unstable,” he said, “and the attempt to stabilize them is like the attempt to go out and stabilize the corkboard at the laundromat.”

Mr. Sterling has a point: for all its many promises, digital storage is perishable, perhaps even more so than paper. Disks corrode, bits “rot” and hardware becomes obsolete.

But that doesn’t mean digital preservation is pointless: if we’re going to save even a fraction of the trillions of bits of data churned out every year, we can’t think of digital preservation in the same way we do paper preservation. We have to stop thinking about how to save data only after it’s no longer needed, as when an author donates her papers to an archive. Instead, we must look for ways to continuously maintain and improve it. In other words, we must stop preserving digital material and start curating it.

At first glance, digital preservation seems to promise everything: nearly unlimited storage, ease of access and virtually no cost to making copies. But the practical lessons of digital preservation contradict the notion that bits are eternal. Consider those 5 1/4-inch floppies stockpiled in your basement. When you saved that unpublished manuscript on them, you figured it would be accessible forever. But when was the last time you saw a floppy drive?

And even if you could find the right drive, there’s a good chance the disk’s magnetic properties will have decayed beyond readability. The same goes, generally speaking, for CD-ROMs, DVDs and portable drives.

Even the software needed to read the bits may prove elusive. Like Egyptian hieroglyphs, whose code was indecipherable until the rediscovery of the Rosetta Stone, the string of 1s and 0s on a floppy is meaningless in the absence of a set of computer instructions for translating them. If you don’t have a copy of WordPerfect 2 around, you’re out of luck. No wonder preservationists often wax ominous about the “digital dark ages.”

Of course, there’s always the option of migrating data from old to new media. But migration isn’t as simple as copying files — it’s more like translating from Japanese to Hungarian. Information is invariably lost; do it enough times and the result will be like the garbled message at the end of a game of telephone.

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About carlos

I'm a curious person, of reasonable intellect, "on the beach" (retired) and enjoying my interest in anthropology, language, civil rights, and a few other areas. I've been a hippie/student/aerospace tech writer in the '60s, a witness to the Portuguese revolution in the ‘70s, a defense test engineer and witness to the Guatemalan genocide in the '80s, and a network engineer for an ISP in the '90s. Now I’m a student and commentator until my time is up. I've spent time under the spell of the Mesoamerican pyramids and the sweet sound of the Portuguese language. I've lived in Europe, traveled in Brazil, Central America, Iceland, New Zealand, and other places. My preferred mode of travel is with a backpack and I eat (almost) anything local. Somehow, many of the countries I have been to have had civil unrest (for which I was not responsible). I'm open to correspond with anyone who might share my liberal, humanist interests. I live in San Buenaventura, California.
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