If you’ve ever researched your family tree, you’ve probably been able to trace your ancestors back several generations. You’ve probably also found that the further back you go, the less you know about the people that you find. In as little as a couple of generations, the past becomes shrouded.
In generations to come, how will you be remembered? Will it be the snatches of anecdotes passed on by relatives, or will you leave a detailed and coherent portrait of the way you want to be remembered?
We leave our digital imprint in many places, but this scattering of information will do little to help future generations build a picture of us, even if the information lasted long enough to be researched.
And the reality is, it’s not likely that the data will last very long. It needs a concerted effort to retain and repurpose it. There are three problems to overcome; human intervention, technological change, and information decay.
There have been many examples in the last 100 years of how information and media that should have been stored for posterity has been lost as a result of financial pressure, accidents and a lack of understanding of its long term significance.
In 1948, Universal Studios destroyed most of the 5,000 films it produced during the silent era. In fact, across all studios, it is thought that less than 25% of silent movies survive. People often fail to see the historical value of objects when making key financial decisions.
The companies that we store our data with today seem strong and prosperous, but over decades there are sure to be financial pressures to reduce costs. As data becomes older and less relevant or if a company comes under financial pressure it is likely that they will cease maintenance of older data. Twenty years ago you may have uploaded extensive amounts of data to MySpace. It was the forerunner of today’s social media and gave the impression of longevity in the same way that Facebook does today, but it recently confessed it had lost all of its data for the period prior to 2013.
In these cases, the data was lost because someone had to make a decision and the value of the data was just not valuable enough for them to justify maintaining it.
The last fifty years have seen huge changes in the way that we store information. So much has gone digital, and technology changes very quickly and data needs to move with it.
For generations to come, the way that we record, compress, store and playback data is also sure to change radically.
Audio, video and still images are all compressed using common formats. In 50 years those formats will be archaic and will have been replaced with more modern techniques. It is therefore vital to ensure that content is upgraded as storage is upgraded. It will take a commitment to migrate data to new formats to ensure that information remains accessible.
There are several problems that affect the long-term storage of digital information.
Modern storage media is prone to decay over an extended period of time. If you’ve had a computer for many years, you’ll probably know how often hardware failures occur and that data can be lost.
How fast the data is lost depends on how it is stored. For complex systems like computer hard drives, the failures are relatively fast. Despite conservative manufacturer predictions, the majority of hard drives used for data storage will fail within 15-20 years.
Disk-based storage like CD/DVD and Blu-Ray is harder to estimate as manufacturers have done little testing. However, an accelerated aging analysis by the National Institute of Standards and Technology suggested that the lifespan of disks could be in excess of 30 years when stored in optimal conditions. It is likely that magnetic tape storage will be equally durable under optimal conditions.
However, in terms of longevity, it is clear that all of these methods will result in potentially significant levels of data loss in less than 50 years. Whatever the media chosen, long-term survival of information needs a proactive approach to storage that includes redundancy and a commitment to move to new technologies.
At LifeStories we address all of these concerns for our clients. It is one of the many ways in which we are different from all other corporations. Our goal is not revenue, profit or shareholder value, it’s longevity. We’re building something that will last.