Dataliths vs. the digital dark age

Digital technology has allowed us to store more information at less cost than ever before. At the same time, it’s made this information very fragile in the long term. A book can sit in an abandoned building for centuries and still be readable. Writing carved in stone can last for thousands of years. The chances that your computer’s disk will be readable in a hundred years are poor, though. You’ll have to go to a museum for hardware and software to read it. Once you have all that, it probably won’t even spin up. If it does, the bits may be ruined. In five hundred years, its chance of readability will be essentially zero.

Archivists are aware of this, of course, and they emphasize the need for continual migration. Every couple of decades, at least, stored documents need to be moved to new media and perhaps updated to a new format. Digital copies, if made with reasonable precautions, are perfect. This approach means that documents can be preserved forever, provided the chain never breaks.

Fortunately, there doesn’t have to be just one chain. The LOCKSS (lots of copies keeps stuff safe) principle means that the same document can be stored in archives all over the world. As long as just one of them keeps propagating it, the document will survive.

Does this make us really safe from the prospect of a digital dark age? Will a substantial body of today’s knowledge and literature survive until humans evolve into something so different that it doesn’t matter any more? Not necessarily. To be really safe, information needs to be stored in a form that can survive long periods of neglect. We need dataliths.

Several scenarios could lead to neglect of electronic records for a generation or more. A global nuclear war could destroy major institutions, wreck electronic devices with EMPs, and force people to focus on staying alive. An asteroid hit or a supervolcano eruption could have a similar effect. Humanity might surive these things but take a century or more to return to a working technological society.

Less spectacularly, periods of intense international fear or attempts to manage the world economy might create an unfriendly climate for preserving records of the past. The world might go through a period of severe censorship. Lately religious barbarians have been sacking cities and destroying historical records that don’t fit with their doctrines. Barbarians generally burn themselves out quickly, but “enlightened” authorities can also decide that all “unenlightened” ideas should be banished for the good of us all. Prestigious institutions can be especially vulnerable to censorship because of their visibility and dependence on broad support. Even without legal prohibition, archival culture may shift to decide that some ideas aren’t worth preserving. Either way, it won’t be called censorship; it will be called “fair speech,” “fighting oppression,” “the right to be forgotten,” or some other euphemism that hasn’t yet lost credibility.

How great is the risk of these scenarios? Who can say? To calculate odds, you need repeatable causes, and the technological future will be a lot different from the comparatively low-tech past. But if we’re thinking on a span of thousands of years, we can’t dismiss it as negligible. Whatever may happen, the documents of the past are too valuable to be maintained only by their official guardians.

Hard copy will continue to be important. It’s also subject to most of the forms of loss I’ve mentioned, but some of it can survive for many years with no attention. As long as someone can understand the language it’s written in, or as long as its pictures remain recognizable, it has value. However, we can’t back away from digital storage and print everything we want to preserve. The advantages of bits are clear: easy reproduction and high storage density. This isn’t to say that archivists should abandon the strategy of storing documents with the best technology and migrating them regularly. In good times, that’s the most effective approach. But the bigger strategy should include insurance against the bad times, a form of storage that can survive neglect. Ideally it shouldn’t be in the hands of Harvard or the Library of Congress, but of many “guerilla archivists” acting on their own.

This strategy requires a storage medium which is highly durable and relatively simple to read. It doesn’t have to push the highest edges of storage density. It should be the modern equivalent of the stone tablet, a datalith.

There are devices which tend in this direction. Milleniata claims to offer “forever storage” in its M-Disc. Allegedly it has been “proven to last 1,000 years,” though I wonder how they managed to start testing in the Middle Ages. A DVD uses a complicated format, though, so it may not be readable even if it physically lasts that long. Hitachi has been working on quartz glass data storage that could last for millions of years and be read with an optical microscope. This would be the real datalith. As long as some people still know today’s languages, pulling out ASCII data should be a very simple cryptographic task. Unfortunately, the medium isn’t commercially available yet. Others have worked on similar ideas, such as the Superman memory crystal. Ironically, that article, which proclaims “the first document which will likely survive the human race,” has a broken link to its primary source less than two years after its publication.

Hopefully datalith writers will be available before too long, and after a few years they won’t be outrageously expensive. The records they create will be an important part of the long-term preservation of knowledge.

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