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.

cds

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.

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