// Internet Duct Tape

In the Future This Blog Post will be Obsolete

Posted in Digital Culture, Technology by engtech on February 18, 2007

I spend a lot of time surfing information feeds and I see how ideas form and spread from one person to another. We are in the information age and experiencing information explosion. Push button publishing has lead to ever increasing content. The librarians of the future have their job cut out for them — but that’s okay because the physical storage space for all this data continues to shrink.

The bigger question is how do you keep it accessible? Digital Rights Management (DRM) is one side of the problem — ensuring that anything locked by copyright will be unreadable in 10 years time. The other side of the problem is technological obsolescence. Even if you use open standards they are continually evolving. At the moment I can play MP3s on my computer, iPod, home stereo, car, and gaming console. What about 50 years from now?

Do you own a record player? What about a cassette tape player?

This is great for content producers because they can keep selling you the same thing over and over again. But what about when the data isn’t a consumer good? If there isn’t any money to be made from converting data to the new format du jour then it will be abandoned. Look at this New York Times Best Seller list from the 1940s to 2000s. I haven’t heard of most of the books or authors that were published before I was born. And that was before we hit the Information Age. Good luck finding those books at a bookstore.

Copyright legislation ensures that by the time a published work is freely available for copying it is almost guaranteed there will no longer be an audience who is interested in copying it. More and more content is available in digital format, but by the time it can be legally copied that format can’t be read. Do you have software that can read a WordPerfect [wiki] document [1]?

Old video games see new light because of virtualization and emulators. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. At least with stone tablets you could still read them thousands years later. CD-ROMs can become unreadable after as little as two years [wiki] under normal usage conditions. Even if they are physically accessible the chances of being able to read the content 50 years from now is next to nil. When was the last time you bought a computer with a 3.5 inch drive?

Content is disposable and the chance that something you create will be read, watched, or listened to years from now are next to nothing unless it continues to remain commercially viable from generation to generation. Even if you created something that could stand the test of time there are too many new voices producing too many new things. The best of the best is a needle in the haystack and the haystack keeps getting bigger.

[1] And I am unfairly picking on WordPerfect. It is still a commercially available product, just one that few people use.

10 Responses

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  1. joy said, on February 18, 2007 at 3:02 am

    That’s something that I have been wondering for a while. I suppose we will have to keep evolving with the technology, and making back-up copies of whatever we have on file… in whatever technology is being used at the moment to store content. Let’s hope they have a longer life than Zip drives. But it’s hard, I suppose, because it’s so easy to get lost in the haystack.

  2. engtech said, on February 18, 2007 at 3:05 am

    I think back to some of the first websites I did in 94 that are on a floppy disk somewhere in my parent’s basement. Lost forever.

    Which probably isn’t a bad thing. :)

    But where this really sucks is stuff like creative writing you did as a kid that would be fun to show your own children.

  3. joy said, on February 18, 2007 at 3:51 am

    That’s true. I think my mom still has the first story I wrote when I was in the first grade… But the paper is all yellowing… but it still goes to show that maybe paper is better for that kind of stuff.

  4. apotheon said, on February 18, 2007 at 4:50 am

    I seem to have a much more rosy outlook on data persistency in the advancing information age, for the most part, than you do.

    It seems to me that the major problem with storage media is not that storage media changes, but that archival storage media changes. Records, CDs, and Zip drives are archival storage media. Hard drives and solid state storage are (generally) live storage media. These are things used for persistent storage not because you’re sticking the stored data in a warehouse or a fireproof safe in case of disaster, but rather because your live data access system might crash and you don’t want the data to go up in smoke like volatile memory.

    As long as the data you’re hoping will last is stored on live systems rather than on archived media, when storage media advances the live systems will tend to advance (and migrate the data to the new media formats) along with it.

    Data file formats, on the other hand, can be a problem where proprietary data is concerned. As long as the law prohibits free redistribution of data, we’re going to lose a lot of data to file format obsolescence. Open source software mitigates this to a fair degree, and pretty much makes it a non-issue for non-proprietary data, but in the case of proprietary data where copying is legally prohibited even open source software doesn’t solve the underlying problem: you’re not allowed to make sure the data survives.

    For instance — while I don’t personally have software that handles the WordPerfect document format, simply because I don’t have any WordPerfect documents, I have such software available at my fingertips (as it were). The reason for this is that I’m using open source operating systems with substantial software archives from which I can install all manner of software for handling all manner of file formats, accessible by way of the software management systems of the various OSes I’m using. For instance, via my Debian systems’ APT (advanced package tool), I could install wp2x or wpd2sxw in a matter of seconds. I discovered these tools using APT’s search capability, with “wordperfect” as my search term.

    Proprietary data, especially with the increasing prevalence of DRM, is a huge problem for data persistence over time, however. By prohibiting free copying and distribution, proprietary data ensures its own obsolescence and eventual obscurity — unless that prohibition happens to dissolve in time to “rescue” the data from obscurity. I’m convinced that today we as a society might not even know what the Bible is, who William Shakespeare was, or what Mozart did for music if the respective works were subject to strong proprietary control like most of the content of today. I guess the moral of the story is that if you are more interested in controlling your market than you are in the timeless value of your works, you don’t have any particular (strictly pragmatic) reason to allow free distribution of your work. If, on the other hand, you want your work to be relevant in thirty years or so, you had best ensure it is allowed to spread by means other than your own, personal distribution of them.

    I’m reminded of Richard Dawkins’ invention of the term “meme”, and its importance for discussing the evolution of ideas. The whole mechanism for survival of a meme is the same as that for the gene: fecundity. If the meme is to persist, it must spread. That requires copying. The memes that are most likely to survive are those that are most likely to (successfully) copy themselves during the lifetime of a given copy by virtue of the characteristics of the meme itself.

    If you want your legacy to survive, set it free. Release into the public domain is a decent option as well.

  5. engtech said, on February 19, 2007 at 10:40 am

    Great comment, Apothoen.

    I agree that the once you get physical storage formats out of the way things aren’t as tricky.

    I’m a little less optimistic about open source than you are. I’m currently battling trying to release something as a self-installing archive and running into dependencies with things that aren’t necessary but are causing the packaging to fail. That has been my professional/personal experience with a lot of open source projects — getting a code base that has to use a specific version of GCC and shared libraries to compile, plus requiring a 32-bit OS when all the machines on site are running 64 bit OSes. Not insurmountable, but not trivial.

    (aside: virtualization may solve this problem in the future)

    Like how commercial works only get reproduced in the new format if there is money to be made, open source projects only continue to get development eyes if they’re popular. SourceForge is filled with aborted code. Trying to install old code on a newer OS can be a dependency nightmare — and it’s only going to get worse for abandoned code with time. Open source does at least have the openness that someone could potentially re-write the code to work in a modern system (assuming knowledge of the language, and a working compiler).

    But I’m thinking longer term here. Think of how difficult it could be to retrieve data that’s 40-60 years old — data that wasn’t “sexy” enough to be format shifted along the way. Even if you had the open source (punch cards?) you wouldn’t necessarily have the hardware or expertise to do something with it — especially at the user level.

  6. momes said, on February 19, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    I think that in the future, the idea of the Blog will not disappear. Conversely, I believe it will become omnipresent, integrated into everyone’s daily lives.

    As DRM laws and legislation is weakening its grip on internet media, and the idea of Creative Commons is taking shape. Freedom of expression, something Blogs propagate, will reign supreme.

    Media will continue, just as it has been doing, to move from the offline world to the online community. What I once would refer to in the yellow pages, I now search online at google.com. Blogs are one part of this revolution and as the move towards online media continues, Blogs will take precedence as a form of communication that is easy to set-up and distribute.

    I think I, myself, am testament to this movement online. As a result of the recent craze for “Web 2.0”, I have, myself, started a blog to experience the revolution.

    Time’s person of the year edition had a picture of the youtube player with a mirror on it-> emphasizing the development of personal media online. I believe blogging is exactly the same idea – individual freedom of expression in a very convienent manner.

    Just my 2 cents.

  7. engtech said, on February 21, 2007 at 11:42 pm

    @momes: It may not have changed, but I think it will be intrinsically different to the point where it is unrecognizable. 5 years ago blogs were personal journals, now there are sites like TechCrunch and LifeHacker which are professional businesses even though they follow the blog format.

    One of the ideas I was trying to share is that when everyone has freedom of expression it becomes even harder to find the good stuff. If you look at cultural history there were “gatekeepers” who control what ideas become popular (modern equivalent is something like the RIAA who control what artists are played on the radio or Oprah who can make any book a best seller with her book club). It is easier and easier to produce and disseminate information, and gatekeepers have shifted from centralized to distributed models like Digg.

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