Future Tech

Data Decay and the Chauvet Cave Paintings

0 Comments 30 April 2012

For all our advances in technology, particularly on the computing front, it was with some surprise that I read about one element of this recent revolution that actually seems to be going backwards. That is, data stored electronically decays!

It’s become so bad that many floppy discs from the early digital age are already unreadable. One article I read reported that NASA has lost data from some of its earliest missions because the readers that were built to run the tapes are no longer made and can’t be rebuilt. That’s only 50 years ago. It seems preposterous and a little worrying given the increasing trend to digitise everything especially books. Contrast that with the Chauvet Cave Paintings that I posted about last year – some of the images have been carbon dated to over 30,000 years ago. That’s right. Some prehistoric men were able to render the most beautiful imagery on cave walls using the most rudimentary materials whilst we, with all our technological wizardry, can’t make our information last a 600th of that time span.

Of course you could argue that the vast bulk of our information is probably not worth keeping anyway. Who is going to be interested in the random tweets of thirty or some million twitterers or the social interaction of Facebook’s nine hundred million or so members. Probably not many, except of course historians who rely on the banality of everyday life to build up precise pictures of the past. Unfortunately if this is allowed to continue, anyone in 2050 will be hard pushed to make very little sense of say, this year’s London Olympics. Many of the video casts, websites and blogs will long since have disappeared into the digital ether.

Unfortunately it is unlikely to get better any time soon. In Britain legislators are looking to make it compulsory for publishers to make digital copies of everything they publish available to the British Library in much the same way as they currently have to do for printed material. Of course that still leaves the library having to update how it stores the material every 5 or so years by transferring it all onto new hardware and also having to create emulators to be able to view it.

It seems an awful lot of work to preserve our history which has to be a good thing. I can’t help but return to those wonderful cave paintings. So simple. So stunning. And so long lasting. Unlike our current history which could all soon be lost forever, a victim of our wonderful technologically advanced society!

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