Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Preserving digital data

Wired News writes today about the Internet Archive’s desire to preserve old software, and the barrier presented by the DCMA to the project.

Most of us think of old software as irretrievably obsolete, and not worth preserving. Who needs an ancient copy of Microsoft Word, of Lotus 1-2-3, or Dark Castle? But Kahle and others see old sfotware as part of our social and cultural history, and as deserving of preservation as any object that, in its day, was important. Just because we fly jets doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have a few DC-3s and Sopwith Camels around, even if they’re just in museums.

And the preservation of old data is a gigantic technical challenge: magnetic media decay quickly (and optical media can too), hardware hits the junk heap, operating systems evolve to a point of incompatibility with earlier versions. It’s said that we can no longer access early satellite images, because the tapes have decayed too severely. Looking at the big trend, Stewart Brand argues that we’re going to enter a “Digital Dark Age,” where materials from a century (or a millenium) ago are still readable, but stuff from 30 or 40 years ago will be forever lost. Not much of an issue when you’re talking about that old copy of your resume on that 286 machine in the closet; but when you get to the level of digital books, government records, and newspapers, the problem becomes more severe.

There’s been talk about this for a while: the 1998 Time and Bits conference was possibly the first to bring the problem of digital media decay to popular attention. The Long Now Foundation, Stanford Library’s LOCKSS project, the Computer History Museum, and a host of others are taking different approaches to what you might think of as digital archaeology.

1 Comment

  1. I just want to revive the meme of “twisty little passages, all alike” from Zork.

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