Dear Popular Mechanics, (A *SHORT* Rebuttal to The Digital Ice Age)

by M. David Peterson

The Digital Ice Age - Popular Mechanics

The documents of our time are being recorded as bits and bytes with no guarantee of future readability. As technologies change, we may find our files frozen in forgotten formats. Will an entire era of human history be lost?


The above lead-in to the above linked story is about as close to the actual content of the story as we are to the last "Ice Age" this planet encountered. Subtle changes in the processing software is one thing. But the idea of a hard drive crashing, an online email company going out of business, or the magnetic disk our data is stored on losing its "memory" is quite another. It has nothing to do with the fact that they are stored in "bits and bytes" and everything to do with the storage medium they are stored on as well as how many places they are stored.

Today we have hackers crackin' some of the most tightly guarded cryptographic file formats -- formats that were specifically designed to keep people from viewing their contents unless they have "permission" to do so -- in a matter of hours, days, weeks, sometimes months, and in rare cases, a few years after these formats were first introduced. So the notion of no guarantee of future readability is a flat-out fabrication of the imagination.

DRM is one thing. DRM affects us in the here and now, so it's an issue worth arguing. But in regards to we may find our files frozen in forgotten formats.?

If they're forgotten, it will have been for a reason -- for example: NO ONE USED THEM.

Will an entire era of human history be lost?

It's always possible. But it wouldn't be because of forgotten formats. Natural disaster, the medium in which data is recorded, or simple human error are all plausible scenario's. But attempting to scare people into believing that "in the future it's possible that people may not be able to read our 4th grade "What I Did Last Summer?" report, or even our doctoral thesis on the lifespan of the average floppy disk" because "The documents of our time are being recorded as bits and bytes" is nothing less than FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt), pure and simple.

The chance of a natural disaster, the storage medium our data is stored on giving up the ghost, or a fly-by-night online email company? These we SHOULD fear.

"The documents of our time are being recorded as bits and bytes with no guarantee of future readability.


This we SHOULD NOT fear!

Thanks for reading.

2 Comments

len
2006-11-22 06:22:48
In the long lifecycle, we know that lots of knowledge does get lost and the medium may not make a difference. The recovery of Egyptian hieroglyphics is an example. On the other hand, the library of Alexandria is gone forever.


A similar thread is going on the X3D/VRML lists regards VRML 1.0. It was a successful format but not a very capable one. It was 'the simplest thing that could possibly work' and because it was a static model without behaviors, the vendors and the community moved on to VRML97. Then the bubble burst, history has been rewriten since (SecondLife Invents the Metaverse! yeah, whatever...) for the purpose of marketing new applications.


So history, format and application do force some formats out of mainstream use but in the case of the web, NOT OFF THE SERVERS. The dilemma in VRML/X3D is that even with the new X3D format as the third generation of the language, there are still a significant number of VRML 1.0 files on the servers. There are no usage statistics but they are still there and the question is, should an author/owner of these files expect the new players to still support them?


In the database community, data conversion costs are accepted as a fact of business when a new system replaces an old one. It is priced into the contract. On the other hand, HTML, VRML, SVG, etc are documents. We expect those to keep working in a backwards compatible mode of operation particularly if they were wildly successful in their initial fielding. As a result, HTML has created hyteresis in its evolution such that the camps have bifurcated into different languages with familial relationships and the (X)HTML browsers have to support them all XML's draconian parse not withstanding.


1) Initial fielding of the 'simplest thing that can possibly work' coupled with 'wild success' has consequences later. Like an early young marriage, you may outgrow it and face an expensive divorce or an uncomfortable life later.


2) Expectations of databases and document systems are different, but the Internet and the WWW system create a hot zone where these requirements overlap. Language by language, we are facing different decisions made by different vendors at different times (no Overton here) that will make interoperation in mashups and aggregate documents problematic at best and highly failure prone at worst.


The outcomes for languages and requirements for vendors are left to the reader to work out. Let me put it this way: Microsoft has no reason to fear that it won't have a secure future.

M. David Peterson
2006-11-23 22:08:43
@len,


Wish I had more time to respond, but I *LOVE* this line,


> The outcomes for languages and requirements for vendors are left to the reader to work out. Let me put it this way: Microsoft has no reason to fear that it won't have a secure future. <


Yup! :D