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Digital Preservation

Previous: The City is burningNext: Digital verwöhnt
Assigned keywords: Computer

A much quoted, alleged problem of the "Digital Age" is that of digital amnesia, the risk of loosing information because hard drives fail or file formats cannot be read any more. Yet I would say that the situation is quite opposite: the digital age actually offers the least risk of loosing information.

But lets first look at analog media. We have to seperate them into truly analog media and "pseudodigital" or "paradigital" media, which suffer from the same limitation as the digital media of today. The latter would be, for instance, books, scrolls, inscriptions or whatever stores information laid down into some kind of code. Language already is encoded reality, and writing is even more. What good is a book you find when you can't read the language? Next to worthless. Coded information is already somewhat transcendent from the media; when you speak of The Bible, you don't speak of a certain book, but the information which constitutes what we call The Bible.
The truly analog media are those which convey information by themselves, such as paintings, murals or fotographs. A picture "works" without having to decrypt any code; given that it stood the test of time, it will show viewers centuries later what it has show to it's contemporaries. Analog media will however deteriorate and therefore destroy information, so it becomes unlikely that you can see what was there to begin with. The next problem is that analog media loose information when copied, as noise builds up. Digital and paradigital media can survive unchanged for centuries if copied properly, because information is copied instead of trying to replicate matter.

Paradigital as well as the analog media have the advantage that they can be accessed with no or little effort - you just open a book or view a picture. If you find a box full of family images, you can usually view them immediately, even slides you can at least assess roughly by looking through them at a light source.
But such media are tedious to handle. If you loose the original of an analog media, it is lost forever; if you want to keep yourself from loosing them, you have to protect the matter they consist of. To go extra safe, you have to replicate them as good as possible, storing the replicas as well. But the very access to make a copy will already wear your original, worse or less depending on the exact nature of the media. Replication as well as storage will be an expensive process, because there are many threats, such as fire, moisture, flood and processes which will degrade the media over time (such as acid in old books). Those are measures which are almost impossible to handle for common people; so they'll have a high risk to loosing all of their information in case of desaster. A photographer's slide archive was flooded and subsequently destroyed.

Digital media are much more easier to handle. It is easy to make copies and therefore backups of, say, image files, which have the additional advantage of neither having a degraded copy or hurting the "original" in the process. The aforementioned photographer would have had to make a copy at regular intervals and store those copies someplace else - but even then he'd ended up with copies and not the originals. With digital media, it is not too far fetched of having a solid backup strategy with information copied to several media which are distributed to several places. Given the internet, it is even possible to backup information at locations far away, which reduces the risk of total data loss to either the worst of bad coincidences or desasters of global scale. If information is copied from media to media, it stands a good chance to survive for a long time. Even the often cited compatibility problem doesn't give me much of a headache - actually, what are prominent examples? I find it highly unlikely that image formats will disappear, worse off will be interpreted file formats such as vector images. But we have to ask ourselves whether it really matters that someone can't Adobe Illustrator files from 1995 anymore. I've lost some data over the years as well, but I haven't missed much of them. Actually I was kind of embarassed when I found that old disk and reviewed it's contents, although I liked that drawing of the USS Enterprise.


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