Data Gets Old Fast

By Deane Barker on October 5, 2004

The Long Now Foundation: library: This is a really good essay on the lack of longevity with digital media. It’s not just the media itself that degrades, but the file formats.

Computer scientist Danny Hillis notes that we have good raw data from previous ages written on clay, on stone, on parchment and paper, but from the 1950s to the present, recorded information increasingly disappears into a digital gap. Historians will consider this a dark age. Science historians can read Galileo’s technical correspondence from the 1590s but not Marvin Minsky’s from the 1960s.

Say you’re on death row, scheduled to be wrongly executed that evening. Someone hands your lawyer a PDF 1.0 document on a 5 1/4” floppy and tells him that it contains the identity of the real killer. Do you think you’ll live to see the next day? Keep in mind the PDF format was originally released on June 15, 1993.

If you’re interested in this, check out our old post on the PDF-A format (more here) they’re working towards now.

The site this essay appears on is for the Long Now Foundation which apparently thinks about these things. A lot. They’re working to build a 10,000 year clock that will still tell time in a format we can understand in…10,000 years.