We are moving away from simple human readable standalone recording methods
to complex only machine-readable integrated recording. And the implications
of that are being ignored for the most part. Now, the first sentence there
was a bit of a mouthful. But what I'm getting at is three-fold.
This file is not human readable
The very basic methods of recording information used to be making marks
on something relatively permanent (cave walls, papyrus, wood, stone, paper,
etc.). For a long period of time, technology advanced slowly and even the
printing press didn't change the fundamental nature of recording information.
The biggest problems with loss of information came from destruction or
deterioration of the media, or disuse of the language. Usually you could
reverse engineer meaning (hieroglyphics) or find a good translation key
However, more recent technologies are no longer human readable. Things
like the Edison cylinders and later vinyl records required machinery (although
simple) to decipher the contents. Luckily, this was mostly limited to audio.
And the idea of just sticking a needle in the groove was pretty self-evident,
and pretty easily manufactured. Now, however, we've moved through paper
tape and cards (human readable in a sense) to invisible magnetic tape and
diskettes to CDROMs (and their successors). I could read a punched card
or paper tape with my eyes if I had to. Can't do that with floppies or
CDROMs. More and more of our society's information is being stored in formats
that are not human-readable, even in the
hardest punched-card sense.
More and more data is being recorded in online websites and other online
systems -- and nowhere else. Someone turns the power switch off and the
information essentially does not exist. If any part of our complex Internet
fails (and loosing power to your house counts!), access to the data is
gone. An interesting trade-off. The old method of printing information
limited access. The Internet expands the access, but makes it fragile.
The data is only available as long as those disk drives are spinning and
the wires are connected and the routers are routing and the electrical
plants are generating and...
Formats obsoleted rapidly
Who has access to an Edison machine for playing the wax cylinders? A record
player for vinyl LPs? An 8-track tape player? A tape punch? A 7-track reel-to-reel
computer tape drive? An 8" floppy drive? Heck, even a 5 1/4" floppy drive?
These new formats are being obsoleted so quickly that information stored
on old media is simply considered lost. For the longest time, you could
still play 78s on your record player even though they had been obsoleted
by LPs. Black and white TVs can still receive the current color broadcasts.
But the pace of change has increased, and the concern with compatibility
has decreased (besides, there's more profit in selling new devices). Witness
the plans for HDTV in the US. All current television sets will be
obsoleted (including the one you bought last week and the black and white
your aunt has used for decades).
Worse yet, the actual medium is not the end of the problem. For
example, even if you have the old 8" drive to read the media, the data
is likely recorded in some unsupported format, like WordStar. And although
you could probably hack your way through a WordStar document with a binary
file editor, the file formats are becoming more complex too. I don't even
want to know what the inside of a Word97 file looks like (but yes I want
most of the formatting features!).
Interestingly, this last third problem is the problem most likely to
affect us as a society. The first two problems will more likely affect
our legacy to the future should our society die out (and what do we care
if it does). Or perhaps the first two items would become a problem if our
society regresses, perhaps after catastrophe such as a nuclear war (hey,
now we really have to worry about that again -- thank's India!) or a meteor
hit. For our generation and those in the near future, again this
is not a big deal, since most of our important information is still in
printed form. But who knows how long that will last.
Comments? I may be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright 1998 Robert L. Oliver
The views expressed here are the author's.