[IWAR] TECH data storage risk/loss

From: 7Pillars Partners (partnersat_private)
Date: Thu Jul 02 1998 - 09:39:12 PDT

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    We've already experienced this sort of problem with our own 'dataliths'--data
    structures that are dynamic and internally cohere, but can't be represented
    well outside its existing structure (try flattening out a 4D model of global
    markets some time, when markets now never close; a 'halt and checkpoint' is
    truly Heisenbergian).  --MW
    Storing data for the future growing difficult
       Knight Ridder News Service
       WASHINGTON -- Imagine that William Shakespeare wrote his sonnets on a
       word processor and Thomas Jefferson stored early drafts of the
       Declaration of Independence on floppy disks.
       Unless their words were transferred to paper, they would have vanished
       long ago, experts say, or turned into an unreadable jumble of 0's and
       1's -- the hieroglyphics of the computer age.
       Modern information technology is creating a worrisome problem that has
       not yet been solved -- how to preserve knowledge for future generations.
       As more data are collected in electronic form and circulated on the
       Internet, the danger grows that vital information will be lost. Already
       some census data, veterans files and toxic-waste records have been lost.
       ``People don't realize how much of the civilization we live in is
       created and stored electronically,'' said Abby Smith, an expert at the
       Council on Library and Information Resources, a nonprofit organization
       working on the issue. ``The more advanced we are, the more fragile we
       The problem is likely to get worse. By the year 2000, 75 percent of
       federal government records will be in electronic form.
       ``The potential danger to the world's storehouse of digital information
       is immense,'' a policy statement from the library council declares. ``It
       is impossible to attach a dollar figure to the staggering financial
       consequences of lost or inaccessible data.''
       The change from ink and paper to electrons and photons is causing ``an
       upheaval at least as great as the introduction of printing, if not of
       writing itself,'' declared Jeff Rothenberg, an expert on digital
       information at RAND, a research organization in Santa Monica, Calif.
       ``The record of the entire present period of history is in jeopardy.''
       The National Media Laboratory, a research organization in St. Paul,
       Minn., estimates that data stored on a CD-ROM will be safe for only 10
       years on average, 50 years under ideal conditions. Material on magnetic
       tape lasts an average of five years, 10 years at best, unless it is
       The problem is not just the fragility of computer disks and tapes. Even
       if they can be preserved, the information they contain may soon be as
       unintelligible as Eygptian hieroglyphics were before the discovery of
       the Rosetta stone.
       ``Software changes all the time, every 18 months,'' said Kenneth
       Thibodeau, director of the Center for Electronic Records at the National
       Archives. ``We have to assume that in a relatively short time, none of
       the software you need is going to work.''
       Another complication is the rapid turnover in computer hardware.
       Programs designed for obsolete machines, like the Commodore or Amiga,
       can be run only with great difficulty, if at all. Material stored on
       8-inch floppy disks, popular in the 1980s, is out of reach. The 5
       1/4-inch and 3 1/2-inch floppies are headed for oblivion.
       ``Digitized information is being recorded on hardware and software that
       guarantee rapid and inevitable obsolescence,'' Deanna Marcum, president
       of the library council, told a congressional committee in March.
       Why not just copy everything that should be preserved onto paper? That's
       not a practical solution, experts say, except for small files. Besides
       the space that paper takes, such as records -- unlike electronic records
       -- cannot be indexed, sorted, retrieved or organized efficiently.
       In addition, knowledge is increasingly being stored as multimedia
       documents containing sound, pictures and motion, often with electronic
       links to related documents on the World Wide Web.
       ``There is no print equivalent of the World Wide Web,'' said Margaret
       Hedstrom, an authority on electronic information at the University of
       Michigan in Ann Arbor. ``Putting it on paper would be a step backward.''
       As the gravity of the situation sinks in, various solutions are being
       explored to allow our grandchildren to read what their grandparents have
       Simply copying old tapes and disks to ``refresh'' them is already common
       practice, but doesn't fix the hardware and software problem.
       A safer, but costly, technique is to ``migrate'' the information to new
       machines, using the latest data storage software, a process that has to
       be repeated every few years.
       Computer programs that mimic outdated systems also can be written, so
       material stored on them can be read.
       ``I tend to be an optimist,'' said Thibodeau. ``It's a very serious
       problem, but technology will help us solve it.'' He noted that President
       Clinton asked for a 12 percent increase in the Archives budget to work
       on this issue.
       ``We must act quickly and decisively if we are to help our descendants
       read our documents,'' said Rothenberg, of RAND. ``Digital information
       lasts forever or five years -- whichever comes sooner.''

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