On Permanence (of content)


As we're creating more content on and for the internet (and computers in general), we're placing more of our culture into what is really an ephemeral medium. There is no 1000-year archive plan for the internet. The closest thing we have to that is The Internet Archive - but even that is subject to politics, business, and personal goodwill (of Brewster Kahle).

Backups of content are created, sure, but on formats like CD-ROM or DVD - which may have a lifespan ranging from 5-100 years depending on the specific media and storage conditions. They are also stored in (dozens? hundreds? thousands?) of unique storage formats (.Mac backup, proprietary backup tools, custom hacked tools, etc...) which may be difficult/interesting to interpret after the originators have shed their mortal coils.

Personally, I've got a stack of a couple hundred CD-ROM and DVD-R disks on a shelf in my office. Eventually, the media will start to degrade (or a fire will melt them into cool forms unreadable by any optical drive).

This is no way to preserve a culture. It struck me pretty hard earlier today when I was iChatting with Josh - we were joking that if something isn't online (and more recently, if it doesn't have an RSS feed), it doesn't exist. But - the stuff that is online will not exist in 100 years, let alone 1000...

That may be a good thing for 99.9% of the cat blogs out there. But I'm hoping there is something worth preserving, that may be of interest to those who will follow.

Is the solution to trust in archive.org and hope it does not follow the same fate as the Library of Alexandria which inspired it? Sure - the petaboxes are mirrored eventually to 3 locations. But it's not inconceivable that all copies could be wiped. An EMP would do that quite easily. Then what? We're back to the 1950's, before stuff started getting fed into punch cards.

Maybe I'm making a big deal out of nothing. I just have trouble relaxing about this, when I can't read the documents I wrote on my Vic20, nor the C-64, nor the Amiga, nor the Apple II, etc... Sure, I can emulate the software, but the media is lost...

Update: Looks like I'm not alone in thinking about this recently. ArsTechnica just posted a related article on the longevity of optical media.

Update: Hah! And now even Slashdot is getting onto the story...