Saturday, 20 July 2013

Why we should not abandon the print media in favour of a digital world...

I can't help but somehow find myself subjected to the whole analogue vs digital data discussion as of late... in fact I have come across it quite a few times in the past week. Whilst I am all for advancements in technology and thinking that benefit and progress the human experience, I have to concede to a certain degree of alarm at how willingly people are following the trend of adopting half-baked, rushed advances in technology, with there seeming to be a push towards the complete digitalisation of all assets that the population are blindly swallowing without much concern for the consequences and availability of recourse should these new and unproven technologies turn pear-shaped... In particular those concerning the storage and retrieval of important or historical data.

Call me old-hat and dogmatic in my thinking, but I am of the opinion that whilst hard media is tried, tested and proven to hold up reasonably well for hundreds or even thousands of years, digital media, whilst somewhat convenient and fairly streamlined when functioning as it should, is still very much in it's infancy and as such , potentially subject to harm from shere apathy alone, as well as many facets that are thus far unknown. 

I was actually partaking in this discussion (view the thread here) a few days ago on what remains of the old MacAddict forums at, and have been involved in it or come across it a number of times since ... my position being that firstly, whilst ideally there would be many regular backups of digital data maintained to prevent any permanent irretrievable loss, in reality this cannot be relied upon to occur on a personal level for on, as digital media has become such a convenient and seemingly permanent convenience that the average individual has developed a very poorly guided sense of trust in the ability of said data to withstand the rigours that it may face in a harsh digital world. Furthermore there appears to be an equally misguided trust that somebody else will keep their data safe, and ensure that it is progressed with changes in the technology used to store and access it such that it remains viable into the future.

Particularly since the advent of cloud-type data-access arrangements such as Apple's iCloud, online media repositories (such as photobucket) and the seemingly permanent and accountable social networking media of the past few years, there appears to be a belief among the masses that there is just this magical space where data is stored and it will always be there, as somebody has to be held accountable if it is lost. What is forgotten though, is that all of these repositories are run by a human element and subject to human whims, and the reality is that they are mostly operated and maintained on a large scale corporate basis, which means that when these enterprise fail to turn a profit or enough of one to be considered worthwhile investments of time, money and resources, they will simply fall by the wayside, and the only accountability will be relating to the shareholders... Nobody will be held accountable for lost data, as it can't be traded on a stock exchange. Furthermore, this same commercialist, capitalistic logic can reasonably be seen to dictate that if a tangible gain isnt seen to exist from keeping said data viable into the future, that no effort will be made to do so.

In a nutshell, as digital technology progresses, so do the standards by which it's operations are governed... formats change or become obsolete, breakthroughs are made that cause old storage technologies to be pushed into the past and become unsupported... ie the tape->floppy->CD->DVD->Bluray/Laserdisc progression that has happened in the past 35 years. If no forseeable benefit (other than posterity or heritage... we shall leave them out of this equation at this stage for arguments sake) exists that justifies the continued transference of said data across standards, it can be expected much of it will not be transferred and is as good as lost... It'd be the digital equivilant of finding parchments written in the language of a long extinct race. I actually just recently came across a real-world example of this on a vintage computer forum I'm on. A guy recently came across a stack of data cartridges from NASA containing data pertaining to the Voyager space program dating back to the dark ages of computing. This stuff is no doubt going to be of some historical significance in years to come, if not now... the only issue is its in a platform-specific format that makes it very difficult to access even with some of the more modern old-tech computer equipment that is more readily available. Whether the data still exists in another form is unknown... it no doubt does. However I'm sure there are many similar cases where data has not been ported to keep up with a rapidly advancing technology. I know for a fact I myself have boxes of floppies, even 5.25", that i need old equipment to read. My PC which is now 8 years old doesnt have BIOS support for a 5.25" floppy drive, and Apple made a concerted effort to make the 3.5" floppy media obsolete in 1998 with the release of the iMac. Put simply, we just cannot rely upon everything being preserved in a form that is usable.

Then there is the second point which relates back to the new and still largely uncharted nature of the digital meta-sphere. Even if we assume an ideal world where a concerted effort was made to maintain data in the name of heritage and education and free of commercial interest, what is to say that some sort of natural terrestrial, or extraterrestrial (no im not talking about aliens, but then again...) phenomenon thus far unforseen or unconsidered wouldnt lay waste to large portions of digitally-stored data? For instance natural or man-made electrical or magnetic phenomena, or even, far-fetched but still theoretically possible, technology-specific threats such as a malicious supervirus coded by somebody with the worst of intentions or internal issues that havent presented themself yet... Has everybody forgotten about the fear of the world caving in as a result of the Y2K bug? Whilst it turned out to be a false alarm, it still should be a reminder of the insidiously hazardous nature of the unknown. The next big flaw we discover in computer technology may not be such a harmless, overstated fart in the breeze.

The all-encompassing point i am trying to make in summarising is, that the technology available to us today cannot and should not be trusted at this point in it's development, nor should it be trusted entirely for decades to come, due to the volatility that exists in it's development and the fact it is complex enough that it could actually get the better of us... only a select portion of the world know what they are actually dealing with, and among them, you will not find names like Mark Zuckerberg. Printed or other hard media on the other hand has had thousands of years to be developed and refined, and has proven itself well. It has limitations, it has faults, but the difference is that they are largely physical, and we are aware of them have a full understanding of how to mitigate the risks associated with them to minimise loss of data. Meanwhile, this digital realm we have at our fingertips is realistically the product of 30 years of development... 70 if you want to stretch the boundaries of how modern computing is defined... with much more to be learned for both better and worse before we can credibly say it is to be depended upon as the carrier of the entire human story. As such we should not be encouraging the abandonment of the printed media or it's management systems, as if we do it will reach a point of irrepairable decay, and in the event that the media and systems that replaced it failed, we may very well find ourselves with very sizable gaps in our recorded heritage with little to no recourse... It doesnt take a genius to see this would be a very sad state of affairs indeed.


1 comment:

  1. tangentially related to this, have you seen the Rosetta Project?