March 21, 2002
Dead Trees

As we move further into the digital age, one of the things that really seems to be tying digital info academics' panties into a knot is the "persistence of media". In a nutshell, they're worried that since more and more information is never put on paper, and requires some sort of machine to read it, that information could be lost forever simply due to a lack of the right sort of software or hardware.

While this sounds like a legitimate concern on the face of it, it's ultimately crap. Just because it isn't printed on dead trees, and just because you personally can't understand it with your own eyes, doesn't mean it'll one day get lost forever just because you don't happen to have a copy of Wordstar 2.1 for DOS handy.

There is only one reason knowledge gets well and truly lost: the media it is stored on is completely destroyed. The books in the library of Alexandria were lost because an earthquake leveled the building (Christians just burned what was left a few decades later), and books were so rare that this single event destroyed every copy of many books known to the ancient world. Entire libraries were erased in the late Roman empire because nose-picking barbarians warmed their feet with book fires after mounting the librarians' heads on sticks.

Neither situation holds true for today's "digital age". We've replaced paper and glue with plastics and metals. Media lifetimes are measured in centuries instead of decades. Digital media is so easy and cheap to copy that millions and millions of copies of single works are routinely created and distributed. What's really remarkable is that nobody thinks that this is remarkable in any real way. Except for Hollywood, which is only freaked out because they aren't getting their pound of flesh for each copy, not because the copies exist in and of themselves.

And saying that the persistence of digital media is made worthless by the transient nature of digital media readers is just so much horse-hockey. All they're really complaining about is that it's not going to be easy or cheap to read digital media as time goes by. There's at least one working example of just about every computer ever made in existence to this day. Really old, really huge computers can be restored or reconstructed. Modern digital media readers (i.e. computers) are so incredibly powerful that it is quite possible to create simulations of entire old computers within them, "tricking" old software into believing it is running on original hardware.

The specifications for all manner of media readers are available in any number of formats (paper included), so if you can't find a CD-ROM reader three hundred years from now you could build one from scratch. Or, much more likely, you'll be able to reconfigure an existing device in such a way that it will read the thing for you.

Nobody makes cylinder phonographs any more, yet you can still hear Caruso today. Nobody makes 16-frame-per-second film projectors, yet you can still watch Charlie Chaplin today. Nobody makes 2" ampex video tape players, yet you can still watch the Honeymooners today. All it takes, and all it will ever take, is the original media and the dedication of clever people to understand it.

Anyone who tells you differently is shopping for a government grant.

Posted by scott at March 21, 2002 09:30 AM

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