Technical Difficulties

by Caleb Powers | 11/15/04 6:00am

You can forget about the gap in Social Security funding coming with the retirement of the baby boomers. You can forget about the rapid depletion of fossil fuels, too. You can even forget about your binge drinking problem. "Caleb," you might ask, "why should I not worry about these gathering storms of panic and destruction?" My answer is, of course, don't worry about it because life is too short to worry about such mundane details.

Also, though, there's a problem on the horizon that even moving to Switzerland with wads of cash and a transplanted liver won't get you out of. Yeah, that serious. It's a problem with your camera, your computer and your term paper alike. It's just as much of a problem for you as it is for the federal government. It's the problem of archiving digital information. There are about 115 million personal computers in the United States in use today, each one overflowing with everything from essays on Machiavellian philosophy to video clips of a guy beating Mario Brothers 3 in less than 11 minutes to digital pictures of you and your friend from that time you drove to Tijuana and both woke up with those weird matching tattoos depicting the cast of "The Golden Girls." The problem, as pointed out in a recent article by Katie Hafner in The New York Times, is that of storing this information for even the next few decades.

"Like junk e-mail," she writes, "the problem of digital archiving, which seems straightforward, confounds even the experts."

The complexities arise from a variety of issues. One of the largest troubles is the amount of information that has already been archived on some sort of disk. If you're anything like me, you have a desk drawer somewhere at home full of old, scratched CDs, 3-inch disks, zip disks and a bunch of other digitally stored media that isn't compatible with the computer you use now. Sure, if you really wanted to you could probably go back through the drawer and find a way to save the stuff you really wanted onto a CD-R. The huge chore of sifting through all of the information you don't want aside, you're still faced with the problem that CD-Rs can have a lifespan as short as five years, or shorter if they're scratched. Beyond that is the fact that CDs are not expected to be the standard of information archiving forever.

Whereas a faded photo or document can be restored, a scratched CD is almost as useless as a degree from Columbia.

Jeffrey Rutenbeck, director for the media studies program at the University of Denver, was quoted in the Times as saying that "[w]e're accumulating digital information faster than we can handle, and moving into new platforms faster than we can handle." It's not just a problem of updating and archiving important files, but also one of finding the files in a sea of subdirectories and superfluous information on any given PC. So, is the solution just to print out everything and stick it somewhere to deal with later? Certainly something so Luddistic as making paper copies of everything on our computers is not the most efficient way out of this problem. Yet, as the situation currently stands, the primitive seems to be the key to progress.

This is a real problem.

The Library of Congress is spending millions of dollars in an effort to figure out how to save all of the information we have been producing since the advent of the digital information. Yet, just a few million dollars from the government is not enough. Individual businesses need to realize this danger and begin contributing to the search for a long-term solution. Computer companies need to prepare their customers as they are no doubt preparing themselves. We're talking about retaining information that matters; it's on everything from bank statements to scholarly journals.

Sure, maybe Social Security reform is something that needs to be discussed. And maybe we shouldn't be so readily wasting fossil fuels. However, if we don't find a way to save all of the information created on computers that never leaves them or is stored solely on them -- and that covers about everything these days -- what we call today the "Information Age" might in 200 years be called the "Dark Age."