We do everything in our power to prevent our short lives from turning into oblivion once we die. Whole buildings, paintings and companies are created to in a bid leave our stamp on something more permanent than ourselves.
Currently, we leave behind more than ever; millions of digital pictures, websites and documents. There is something soothing about sharing and storing precious memories, but online data may not be as permanent as we would like to think.
The documentary The End of Memory looks into today’s storage solutions. As storage technologies developed and became more sophisticated, their life expectancy actually declined. Film lasts a century, and vinyl half a century, on average. CDs were considered to be indestructible, until 2003, when LNE researchers debunked this idea. LNE’s Jacques Perdereau found that oxidisation decreased the lifespan of 15% of tested CDs to between one and five years, with the remaining 85% lasting only 20 years.
Other means of storage, Flash drives and SD cards, can store our archives safely for more than a millennium, but solely if each disk is used only once to save data. A flash drive is capable of a limited number of rewrites before it crashes. So, the SD card of your camera will not last that long.
Cloud storage is the newest mainstream storage medium. These ‘clouds’ are actually data centres that use disks. The only way to keep cloud data safe is to repeatedly copy the data to several data centres across the globe, so that if a hard disk crashes, or a fire takes out a whole centre, your data remains.
Long term storage needs are not just vanity, but also essential for our existence.
If the temporary nature of current data capture means is not worrying enough, the real threat is not the storage devices themselves. A floppy disk can still contain data, but it is now difficult to retrieve this data. What once seemed to be the top notch data transmitter, was discarded in just mere decades.
This means that the speed of technological development itself threatens any new storage solutions we invent. As a result, researchers are investigating ways to decipher data with devices that will exist also in the future. One such device is the microscope. Kyoto University researchers devised a way to store information onto quartz that can be extracted using a simple microscope.
Quartz is heat- and acid-proof, giving it a life expectancy of “from 300 million to several billion years”. Furthermore, DNA strings are being developed for storing information. The European Bioinformatics Institute transferred, among other things, a Shakespearian sonnet and Martin Luther King’s speech into the four letters of DNA (A, C, T, and G), successfully decoded by another laboratory.
DNA has to be stored in a cool and dry place out of sunlight, but, if done correctly, it will be safe for a long period of time. In 2013, a paper published by Nature showed that scientists were able to read most of a 700,000-year-old sample of horse DNA. Quartz and DNA may have the storage capabilities of the future.
Long term storage needs are not just vanity, but also essential for our existence. Nuclear waste sites like Andra in France, use barcodes to indicate the contents of barrels. You do not want to think about the possibility of radioactive material being excavated because barcodes cannot be read anymore, as with floppy disks – and probably CDs too, soon.
The locations of nuclear material are, without a doubt, vital to store for centuries to come, but what about all the other data we store? In 2011 alone, we created information the size of a stack of DVDs measuring from Earth to the moon, consisting of websites, photos and status updates. To determine the usefulness of this information for future generations, we can look at one of the biggest archives we have of previous times: the Venetian state archives.
The 80-kilometre-long archive consists of birth and death certificates, business records, and police documents. The important issue, according to Frédéric Kaplan, professor of EPFL Lausanne, is that it contains not just documents on the rich citizens of historical Venice, but on everyone. In that sense, our online data collection is very similar.
It is not expensive to set up cloud storage or publish a website. Still, there are huge parts of the world without internet access, or electricity, for that matter – but more people than ever have online access, in some form or other.
This raises the question of the usefulness of the huge amounts of data we store today. A serious risk is that future historians will be unable to extract the useful parts in the reams of available data. If we continue to develop data storage devices with, for example, DNA or Quartz, we also need to think about reducing information overload for future analysts.
Because, as humans, it is necessary to understand where we come from. I live in Berlin, and am reminded of the Cold War every time I cross the remains of the Berlin wall on my way to the supermarket. Just 25 years ago, people were shot for the trip I now make effortlessly, but this is difficult to grasp. The human mind cannot image pain or suffering that we have never experienced ourselves. So, we need pictures, movies, books and documents (and maybe virtual reality and platform installations, in the future) to remember, as a people, the things we did. And, to make a distinction between important and futile documents.
One possible solution could be to create a time capsule every decade with the data we consider the most important. The information itself, and what we class as vital, will say a lot about our current perception of the world, and will help historians make sense of our era. Because, it is imperative to remember where we came from.