Illusion of permanence

Updated: Apr 14 2008, 03:50am hrs
When people donate their lifes work to Boston Universitys Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center to be preserved alongside Martin Luther King Jrs letters or Bette Daviss scrapbooks, director Vita Paladino has one request: Print out the e-mails. Its the ultimate irony of a digital world.

Cuneiform tablets, the Dead Sea scrolls, and books can still be deciphered after centuries, but the cassette tapes, Atari game cartridges, laser discs, 78s, and floppy disks of the modern age, hold information that has already become virtually irretrievable.

Digital files decay over time. A typical low-cost hard drive lasts five years. While CDs and DVDs havent been around long enough to know whether they will in fact last a century, some studies indicate they may last only 20 years. Who knows how long theyre going to last how much time before the information on a zip disk just goes into heaven, cyberspace heaven, said Paladino, who recently was shipping out a box of Betamax tapes of the television show Adam Smiths Money World, to be converted into a more usable format.

And bits written on a disk that do survive completely intact face a far bigger obstacle. The fast pace of technology innovation suggests its unlikely that people will have the equipment to read media or the software to understand the file format in a decade, much less in a century. In 20 years, todays CD players wont exist the same thing weve seen with floppy drives, said Michael Kilian, distinguished engineer at the Hopkinton storage company EMC Corp. In some drawer I have an eight-inch floppy; they still flop. Those are useless...

The solution is Sisyphean. Like the man in Greek mythology who pushed a boulder up a hill only to see it tumble back down over and again, digital media must constantly be updated and tended and moved to the next media. All of us have these days digital cameras, cellphones, a lot that is born digital, said Francine Berman, director of the University of California San Diegos Supercomputer Center and head of a digital preservation task force formed this year. You can file and forget a book, but our storage media will see the next generation every two to five years, and if we want to keep that material we have to carefully migrate it from one generation to the next. Berman envisions a day when people pay a data bill, much as they pay for any utility today electricity, gas, or heat.

Last fall, EMC acquired Berkeley Data Systems Inc, which provides Mozy, a consumer and small business service that allows people to back up their data on virtual, remote servers and does the work of checking the integrity of the data and repairing decay. But some are just tackling the problem of decoding the crates of disks or records that are collecting dust in peoples basements.

Stewart Adam started a business, Creative Audio Works, out of his attic in Plymouth, taking the sounds of generations past and burning them onto CDs or DVDs so that people can enjoy the 78 records, audio cassettes, and reels of audio from decades ago.

When people had recordings made in the 50s and 60s, they thought reel-to-reel is going to be around 100 years or more, Adam said. They want to preserve it now so they can hand it along to the grandkids...there are five million hours of analog audio stored on peoples shelves or libraries or basements or whatever my goal is to try and transfer some of that. Other similar services proliferate on the Internet. One company, Ion Audio, sells a USB Turntable that turns vinyl records into MP3s, and Tape 2 PC, which turns a mix tape into an iTunes-ready format.

There are plenty of tales of data gone missing or recovered at great expense, but the biggest risk may be information that does not seem valuable at first glance. A cautionary tale is video games where everything began in digital form, without much thought to how to save them. Its not the first thing that comes to mind you want to preserve important documents and cultural things, paintings, and music and books and all that, said Albert Yarusso, who runs, a kind of living video game archive.

But that means the Commodore 64, Atari gaming systems, and even the first Nintendo gaming systems are growing scarce. Programmers are scrambling to revive the games loading simulators on their computers, digitising the old cartridges. And companies like Nintendo are making classic games like the original Super Mario Bros available on the Wiis virtual console.

The confusing thing is that digital memory offers the illusion of permanence. Even when people would like to see a file disappear, for instance, delete just doesnt seem to last forever whether it is on social networks like Facebook, or e-mails or text messages that surface years later.

But even so, things are lost. Companies such as JPMorgan Chase and Merrill Lynch have both run into trouble when they failed to promptly produce missing e-mails to the Securities and Exchange Commission. Last fall, the National Security Archive filed a lawsuit against the Executive Office of the President, because an estimated five million e-mails between 2003 and 2005 had been deleted from the server. Unless relief is granted and the e-mails expeditiously restored from the backup tapes, these federal and presidential records may be lost forever, the lawsuit said. And people who do most of their work in digital format, store photos in their hard drives, and conduct everything from romance to taxes in bytes will inevitably want to access some of that information later. In 2006, the world produced an estimated 161 billion gigabytes of data, according to a study by IDC Corp. By 2010, the amount is expected to increase more than six-fold.

Its impossible to predict what the next memory device will be. Todays devices, which seem so convenient and hip and utterly modern like USB flash drives and iPods hardly seem likely to go the way of the 78. But thats the hubris that can be found in pretty much any age. The quick progress and continuing evolution of technology mean a greater risk of digital obsolescence. I dont think people think about it because youre consuming whatever is most popular, easiest to get, easiest to use in your time, said Martha Anderson, director of programme management for the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program at the Library of Congress. We are in this transition time...As digital information grows, I think people will have to come to grips what is really valuable and what do they want to save

NY Times / Carolyn Y Johnson