Digital Immortality…Or Is It?

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One of the interesting discussion points at the ODF Summit I attended several weeks back was the idea of data longevity. In other words, how long can you be confident of accessing the data you’ve entrusted to a particular digital medium. Several of the attendees related anecdotes of customers being unable to access particular documents they’d created years, occasionally even decades earlier, because the applications that created them no longer existed.

I found the discussion interesting not because I talk to a great many of customers in the same situation – many if not most are relatively indifferent to the vast majority of content they generate, with obvious exceptions such as healthcare, insurance, etc – but because it was a reminder of a problem that’s been vexing me for some time. We, or at least I, often assume that the advent of digitally captured information is somehow a boon for information storage and retrieval. And indeed, the case could be argued that it is. Unlike physical media such as paper or photographs, digital media is not subject to deterioration. It does not need to be kept in a nitrogen filled chamber as is the US Constitution, and making backup or replica copies is often the task of seconds rather than hours. But are we really better off? I’m beginning to wonder.

Just last Thursday while text messaging with a friend of mine to while away the long hours at O’Hare, my terrible Motorola V710 phone informed me that I was low on memory and had to delete some message to ensure receipt of new ones. This was hardly an ordeal, given that most of the messages in question were relatively trivial, but there have been times in the past where I wish I’d kept some of the messages people have sent over. Following the Red Sox victory in the World Series, for example, I was innundated with congratulatory messages from friends and family. Were these mission critical missives? Absolutely not. Do I wish I still had them to run through from time to time? Absolutely. Ditto for my college email. But all of this has gone the way of so much of the digital information in my life.

It’s not all irrelevant correspondence, either. A couple of years back I was forcefully reminded of the old maxim – there are two kinds of people in the world; those who don’t back up their data, and those that have suffered a hard drive failure – when a friend of mine lost essentially the entirety of their work and personal electronic information when a hard drive prematurely expired. Seeing the horror that ensued, I promptly dropped in a 60 GB IBM hard drive into the second bay of my desktop. Within a couple of weeks, I had forgotten the original purpose of the drive – backup – and begun using it for pure storage. All of my music and most of my documents going back nearly a decade and a couple of jobs ended up on there. Fortunately, my music collection outgrew that and was subsequently offloaded onto an external Maxtor 250 GB drive. Fortunate, because after making cricket noises for a week or two – just as the main drive in the PC is now – the drive expired and could not be resuscitated. Because the really critical data – my music collection – wasn’t on there, I didn’t think much of it. But just last night I went to look for some of my old personnel reviews to assist someone going through the same process, only to remember that that data was on the dead drive and thus lost to me.

The point of all of this isn’t to say that digital information is somehow inferior, but rather to remind myself that just because something’s digital, it’s not granted an infinite lifespan. There is a fair amount of correspondence from the Civil and even Revolutionary wars in this country that still survives, while some of my documentation from less than a decade ago has gone the way of the dodo.

It’s for this reason that I’m a big believer in network applications. One of the reasons that I’m a heavy Flickr user, for example, is because I want to make backup of my photos someone else’s problem. Likewise, despite the brutal effort that would be syncing my 60+ GBs of music over my network connection, I’ll strongly consider using this service to backup my music. It’s not even the cost of reassembling my music collection that’s horrific to contemplate – it’s the time. Much of that music was laboriously ripped from CD’s, some was obtained from emusic.com, and still more from iTunes. In the past, some might even have been obtained from other sources. I wouldn’t even know where to start putting it back together if I had to. I’d even go so far as to say that of all my material possessions – big screen TV, home theater, couple of computers, furniture, etc – my music collection is far and away the most valuable and there’s not much that’s even close.

There’s no really easy solution to this problem in a world where my upstream speeds are under 1 mbps [1], but I’m going to be watching the network application space closely in light of pending bandwidth improvements here in the US. What might I do differently if I had access to this, for example? Quite a bit.

[1] Yes, I could undoubtedly rig up a better backup situation than I have now – something like what Alex has set up, for example – but I’d still prefer to have my backups hosted offsite.


  1. I think one of the reasons for digital immoratality is: the information is just on the tips. You don’t bother to walk 3 miles to borrow a book; no need to share the radio show with your friends via phone… Since then, we just “collect” all the stuffs we might need later.

    I am facing the same dillema, my solution is quite brutal. Backup all my work, — I could not buy it from anywhere; Delete unnecessay collections, or burn it to DVD, just keep the most frequently used in the harddisk. This greatly eliminates the burnden of backup and sync.

  2. Now it is on our harddrives and I think that in future all our archieve will be in the internet on some type of archiving service I think and then we will speak about immortality 🙂

  3. bookstack: no question, digital information has huge advantages over the physical medium. but as you note, we sometimes forget its drawbacks.

    Eugene: that’d be nice, but i need more bandwidth first 😉

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