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posted by n1 on Friday May 30 2014, @05:49PM   Printer-friendly [Skip to comment(s)]
from the we-are-not-special dept.

As the world slowly moves towards a 100% digital existence, and increasingly consumes their information online, we run the risk of destroying our own legacy. Consider this hypothetical future narrative:

Historians are at a loss to explain the demise of the first pan-human civilisation, as although they agree that the populous dwindled and went almost extinct at around AD 3500, there seems to be no surviving written historical records that can be dated any later than circa AD 2000.

It can only be assumed that around this time, that there was a sudden uptake of illiteracy, maybe caused by a new religion or global-governmental policy. There are surviving references to an organization or group known as the Inter Nets. We can only guess at what this actually was, but the commonly accepted theory is that it was actually some type of wearable mesh harness that prevented humans of this era from actually writing anything down.

Sound ridiculous? I'm not so sure. As information is continually and fully migrated from the printed page and on to the Internet we lose the permanency that a book or ancient scroll brings. Paper and parchment when stored correctly can survive for thousands of years, and if not, the information held within can be transcribed in to replacement volumes when required. If it wasn't for the (well documented) fire that destroyed the Library of Alexandria we'd still have knowledge of the information that was contained there today.

I believe in freedom of information. It is just and correct that the common person has access to any fact or figure or historical data they require, and this access should be as easy as tapping or talking to a nearby terminal. However the downside of the digital age is that information storage has become transitory. What you were reading yesterday, may not be there today. Just try and search through the old news pages on many popular news websites and you will see how little of the actual news from previous days is preserved.

Ah, but the Internet will never die you say, it will be replaced by something bigger and better. This may be true but will all the information stored on Internet v1.0 be transferred to Internet v2.0? I doubt it. Cataclysmic events have wiped out civilisations many times before, and are sure to do so again. Without proper off-line information preservation everything we know could easily be lost to future civilisations.

Unmaintained, the infrastructure that supports and provides the Internet has a lifespan of less than 10 years, which means after the collapse of civilisation the data held on most of the web servers is unlikely to be accessible after a decade or so. Compare that to the many thousands of printed volumes in our great public libraries which will survive for many hundreds of years if stored under the right conditions. We need to keep adding to these physical archives if only to preserve the memory of who we were.

Related Stories

On the Disappearance of Open Access Journals Over Time 28 comments

David Rosenthal discusses the last 25 years of digital preservation efforts in regards to academic journals. It's a long-standing problem and discontinued journals continue to disappear from the Internet. Paper, microfilm, and microfiche are slow to degrade and are decentralized and distributed. Digital media are quick to disappear and the digital publications are usually only in a single physical place leading to single point of failure. It takes continuous, unbroken effort and money to keep digital publications accessible even if only one person or institution wishes to retain acccess. He goes into the last few decades of academic publishing and how we got here and then brings up 4 points abuot preservation, especially in regards to Open Access publishing.

Lesson 1: libraries won't pay enough to preserve even subscription content, let alone open-access content.

[...] Lesson 2: No-one, not even librarians, knows where most of the at-risk open-access journals are.

[...] Lesson 3: The production preservation pipeline must be completely automated.

[...] Lesson 4: Don't make the best be the enemy of the good. I.e. get as much as possible with the available funds, don't expect to get everything.

He posits that focus should be on the preservation of the individual articles, not the journals as units.

Previously:
(2020) Internet Archive Files Answer and Affirmative Defenses to Publisher Copyright Infringement Lawsuit
(2018) Vint Cerf: Internet is Losing its Memory
(2014) The Importance of Information Preservation


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  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by tibman on Friday May 30 2014, @06:15PM

    by tibman (134) Subscriber Badge on Friday May 30 2014, @06:15PM (#49228)

    It isn't very realistic to create a hardcopy version of the internet though. There will never be an offline hardcopy version of twitter or facebook. Photographs will probably be the big one. If people don't occasionally have hardcopy photos made then their great-grandchildren may never know what you actually looked like. Scientific knowledge IS hardcopied. Most important historical documents are hardcopied. Treating the news like it is historical documents sounds very dangerous. Some knowledge is and should be forgotten because it becomes more meaningless over time, imo.

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    • (Score: 2, Insightful) by Ethanol-fueled on Friday May 30 2014, @06:42PM

      by Ethanol-fueled (2792) on Friday May 30 2014, @06:42PM (#49239) Homepage

      As I recall, there was at least an effort by Google to digitize (often manually) hard copies of as many books as they could, which was then later thwarted by the copyright cartels. So yes, as usual, progress is again thwarted by greedy bastards concerned only with short-term profits.

      And to head off the inevitable pedants who are going to point out that Google is evil, the benevolent nonprofit Freedom News would be thwarted in a similar manner if it were to try the same thing.

      I'm guessing that the most accurate copies of the internet are compiled and stored by national intelligence agencies.

    • (Score: 4, Informative) by Sir Garlon on Friday May 30 2014, @07:01PM

      by Sir Garlon (1264) on Friday May 30 2014, @07:01PM (#49249)

      Treating the news like it is historical documents sounds very dangerous.

      I think I understand your point and I respectfully disagree.

      Treating 50-year old (or 100- or 200-year-old) news articles as historical *fact* would be a mistake, as any historian could probably tell you. However, they are absolutely valuable as historical documents that illustrate how people reacted to events, what their priorities and biases were.

      I presume from your comment you've never gone to the library and taken a roll of microfilm out of the newspaper archive, threaded it into a reader, and scanned the headlines from a few decades before you were born. When I went to college the curriculum was arranged so it would have been pretty hard to graduate without having done that. Fascinating stuff. All of it, the news, the editorial page, even the advertisements, give you insight into the people of that place and time.

      --
      [Sir Garlon] is the marvellest knight that is now living, for he destroyeth many good knights, for he goeth invisible.
      • (Score: 2) by tibman on Friday May 30 2014, @07:41PM

        by tibman (134) Subscriber Badge on Friday May 30 2014, @07:41PM (#49266)

        Very good point, historical news makes a perfect window into the past.

        --
        SN won't survive on lurkers alone. Write comments.
      • (Score: 2) by sgleysti on Saturday May 31 2014, @12:56AM

        by sgleysti (56) on Saturday May 31 2014, @12:56AM (#49376)

        I've done this just for kicks. I think I picked one from the late 1800s/early 1900s. I was fascinated by the advertising -- it certainly isn't new.

      • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 31 2014, @01:03AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 31 2014, @01:03AM (#49380)

        microfilm[...]newspaper archive

        There's a big problem that was discovered with microfiche archives:
        Local libraries toss out the dead-tree stuff and ALL buy the photographed copies from the SAME company.
        That was fine until somebody discovered that the guy doing the work had skipped pages and EVERYBODY had the same stuff with the SAME screwup.

        -- gewg_

  • (Score: 3, Insightful) by bob_super on Friday May 30 2014, @06:20PM

    by bob_super (1357) on Friday May 30 2014, @06:20PM (#49231)

    The fundamental problem we have is not about saving information. We do way too much of that.

    The problem is whether any future entity would ever be able to read it.
    We can make hard copies of some critical stuff (0.001% ?), which will last well over a thousand years. But the technological understanding to access it is higher than anyone had access to from the dinosaurs until ten or twenty years ago.
    And courtesy of IP and paranoia, you'd better find the stone tablet with the 4096-bit crypto key, too. I'm sorry but the tablet is in another castle.

    Feel free port all that information onto plain-language stone/parchement/archival paper, be called a nutjob, not afford the warehouse climate control bills, and get no return of your investment (therefore being defunded to make next quarter's targets)

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 30 2014, @06:44PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 30 2014, @06:44PM (#49241)

      some critical stuff

      What we consider critical may be garbage to them. What our 'garbage' is they my find fascinating. For example we throw away every advert we can find. Yet maybe they will find it fascinating?

      What is critical?

      • (Score: 2) by egcagrac0 on Friday May 30 2014, @06:58PM

        by egcagrac0 (2705) on Friday May 30 2014, @06:58PM (#49248)

        We're trying to do them a favor.

        Yes, they'll find lolcats and doges fascinating, but I don't think that's how we want our generation to be remembered.

        • (Score: 1) by Joe Desertrat on Sunday June 01 2014, @02:32AM

          by Joe Desertrat (2454) on Sunday June 01 2014, @02:32AM (#49789)

          We're trying to do them a favor.

          Yes, they'll find lolcats and doges fascinating, but I don't think that's how we want our generation to be remembered.

          Sadly, that is probably more representative of our culture than the average viewer of this site would admit. We are garbage producers, garbage is our greatest cultural artifact. I believe the largest man made object on earth in cubic volume now is the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island.

  • (Score: 3, Interesting) by Covalent on Friday May 30 2014, @06:21PM

    by Covalent (43) on Friday May 30 2014, @06:21PM (#49232) Journal

    I do IT (unofficially) for my wife's small business. I always insist on having 3 copies of everything, including 1 offsite. For the first time (yesterday) one of my wife's onsite external hard drives died (click click goes the bad drive). She was worried...but I was able to quickly swap out a new drive and have her back to very safe operation in about 5 minutes.

    The answer here is exactly the same. Storage (even the massive amount required to backup the Internet with a capital I) is very cheap. Set up a foundation to archive this stuff, or better yet, just make another copy of the NSA's copy. :)

    As technology improves and changes, use software to update the old formats. This will never be perfect, but then our translations of ancient Greek, Latin, etc. aren't perfect either. Some data loss is inevitable, but minimizing it is relatively cheap and easy. I suspect this could be done for less than the budget of the NSA (ok ok, I'll stop).

    --
    You can't rationally argue somebody out of a position they didn't rationally get into.
    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 30 2014, @06:48PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 30 2014, @06:48PM (#49243)
      • (Score: 2, Informative) by WillAdams on Friday May 30 2014, @06:52PM

        by WillAdams (1424) on Friday May 30 2014, @06:52PM (#49246)

        For a more personal version of this there's Archive Today:

        https://archive.today/ [archive.today]

      • (Score: 1, Informative) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 31 2014, @12:53AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 31 2014, @12:53AM (#49374)

        If a website has financial or other organizational problems and the domain is subsequently purchased by a competitor|enemy|lien-holder, that new owner can take the content offline or just use robots.txt to block access.
        Archive.org religiously respects robots.txt.

        -- gewg_

  • (Score: 1) by hb253 on Friday May 30 2014, @06:36PM

    by hb253 (745) on Friday May 30 2014, @06:36PM (#49236)

    That would be "populace" not "populous"

    --
    The firings and offshore outsourcing will not stop until morale improves.
  • (Score: 2, Insightful) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 30 2014, @07:12PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 30 2014, @07:12PM (#49251)

    Hell, the DRM servers go down and we'll lose part of our culture tomorrow. I'm more worried about that than the tribulations of archaeologists.

  • (Score: 2) by mattie_p on Friday May 30 2014, @07:33PM

    by mattie_p (13) on Friday May 30 2014, @07:33PM (#49261) Journal

    I suspect that the death of the Internet will not be anytime soon, nor will we mourn the loss of all the digital information. However, for a somewhat dystopian view of what the internet may degenerate into, I recommend "The Dog Said Bow-Wow." [baenebooks.com] (This is linked to a publishing house, presumably with the rights to the story.) Of course, that story will be gone too, along with the internet, by the time that future rolls around.

    • (Score: 2) by bucc5062 on Friday May 30 2014, @08:38PM

      by bucc5062 (699) on Friday May 30 2014, @08:38PM (#49290)

      That was a good read! Thank you.

      --
      The more things change, the more they look the same
  • (Score: 2) by scruffybeard on Friday May 30 2014, @08:14PM

    by scruffybeard (533) on Friday May 30 2014, @08:14PM (#49277)

    I am not sure I see the problem. If this hypothetical future historian digs up an area of NY City from the year 3500 AD, and finds a load of SD cards (some future incarnation), is that not evidence of the existance of that civilization? Given sufficient time to analyze the artifacts, would he not discover that they are used to store information, and then begin the process of recovering that data? As an analogy, we didn't understand hieroglyphs for a long time, but we knew they were a written language, used by ancient Egyptians. It took a lot of hard work, and a lucky discovery, to decode that language.

    If I read this article correctly, the author is proposing some kind of forward compatibility of all data. Is that practical or even possible?

    • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 30 2014, @08:32PM

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 30 2014, @08:32PM (#49285)

      "the author is proposing some kind of forward compatibility of all data. Is that practical or even possible?"

      It is possible, but no one will pay to have it done.

      Paper requires nothing other than a stable inks, environment and the correct non-acidic base material. There
      are minimal ongoing costs.

      There is no financial incentive to preserve the petabytes of information being created today except for the
      media companies, and they have figured out that the copyright process takes care of that for them through
      the Library of Congress, who has been saddled with keeping everything submitted to them for copyright
      protection in perpetuity and is now smothering under that load.

      • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 31 2014, @01:13AM

        by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 31 2014, @01:13AM (#49381)

        Paper [with] non-acidic base material

        The cost to have chosen stable paper stock would have been insignificant to publishers/printers.
        It's the MBA mentality in spades.
        Instead, the vast majority of books were printed on paper that self-destructs. [google.com]
        The previous generation's data on that paper isn't any more immortal that the digital stuff.

        -- gewg_

  • (Score: 2, Insightful) by kbahey on Friday May 30 2014, @09:06PM

    by kbahey (1147) on Friday May 30 2014, @09:06PM (#49305) Homepage

    I agree that the world's information kept digitally will cause information loss eventually.

    I wrote an article [baheyeldin.com] ten years ago about this. There are more here here [baheyeldin.com].

    Basically, can you read floppies that you created merely 15 years ago? What about cassette tapes that have voice recordings or Sinclair ZX Spectrum programs that you wrote? What about that pre-cassette audio tape from the 60s? That was merely half a century ago?

    Lately, I was pondering something related. Up to the early 20th century, whatever technology we used could be easily replicated if a widespread catastrophe happened. For example, telegraphs, trains, telephones, and even early airplanes, could all be manufactured in workshops having metal smelters, blacksmiths, carpenters, ...etc.

    But now, we are reliant on complex integrated circuits made on silicon wafers that are all pervasive. Manufacturing these is not easy. And we may have reached a point where they are recursive. We need CPUs, RAM and graphics chips to make production lines that make CPUs, RAM and graphics chips. Perhaps not in a total dependence (can't make them without earlier versions of themselves), but close.

    More to the point ...

    Stone and clay tablets preserved entire libraries, such as Library of Ashurbanipal [wikipedia.org]. It contained text as famous as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enuma Elish creation story, and far far more material preserved. The same goes for Egyptian inscriptions on temples and inside tombs.

    Where is the Library of Alexandria? It was on papyrus, and it either burned away when the Romans attacked, or perished. Even paper is not durable enough to stand the test of time.

    What about the poor bits on a magnetic or memory medium? Moreover, even if they survive, will the machines that read them survive?

    • (Score: 2) by hubie on Friday May 30 2014, @10:21PM

      by hubie (1068) Subscriber Badge on Friday May 30 2014, @10:21PM (#49333) Journal

      Even the digital data quickly disappears. Yesterday I saw the story about how "LOL" was 25 years old. That sounded too recent so I tried to do a quick search of the Usenet archive. That was an episode of futility.

      • (Score: 1) by kbahey on Friday May 30 2014, @10:30PM

        by kbahey (1147) on Friday May 30 2014, @10:30PM (#49336) Homepage

        And that is data is sort of publicly archived.

        Think about other mundane personal archivals: your bank transactions, what did you buy and for how much, photos of family and travel, emails you corresponded with people about current happenings, ...

        All this will be lost. Unlike accounting records in cuneiform from Mesopotamia, and student ostraca in hieratic from Egypt ...

        Sigh

      • (Score: 1, Interesting) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 30 2014, @11:46PM

        by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 30 2014, @11:46PM (#49358)

        Thank Google for buying the archived data, and then getting bored like a 3 year old and dropping
        it like a toy covered in spit.
        There are no useful Usenet archival searches left anywhere on the web,
        just for-pay warez crap.

  • (Score: 0) by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 30 2014, @10:34PM

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 30 2014, @10:34PM (#49339)

    You mean BC/BCE 2000/3500?

    Lameness filter triggered

  • (Score: 2) by mendax on Saturday May 31 2014, @06:13AM

    by mendax (2840) on Saturday May 31 2014, @06:13AM (#49467)

    I wouldn't say the destruction of the Library of Alexandria was well-documented. For something as important is it was, we know surprisingly little about it. We know roughly when it was founded who founded it, where the Serapeum, an annex of the library and apparently last surviving portion, was located, the name of a few of its directors, the names of a few books that were located in it, the names of a few scholars who worked in it, and that it was ultimately destroyed. But we really don't know for certain when it was destroyed or how it was destroyed. We don;t even know with any certainty where in Alexandria the library was located.

    This fact only serves to highlight the problem that the article is trying to solve. However, it's also quite ironical that, given that we know very little about the library, nearly all the extant scraps of letters, legal documents, and books of the ancient Greek and Roman civilization were found in Egypt in ancient trash heaps and wrapped up in mummies. The only reason they survived the centuries is because Egypt is so dry and that they were written on papyrus.

    --
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