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Are We Losing Our Memory? or The Museum of Obsolete Technology
From: David Farber <dave () farber net>
Date: Sun, 22 Mar 2009 09:19:10 -0400

Begin forwarded message:

From: Brian Randell <Brian.Randell () ncl ac uk>
Date: March 22, 2009 5:50:16 AM EDT
To: dave () farber net
Subject: Are We Losing Our Memory? or The Museum of Obsolete Technology

Hi Dave:

For IP if you wish.




Are We Losing Our Memory? or The Museum of Obsolete Technology

by Alexander Stille

Running out of time at the National Archives.

In a temperature-controlled laboratory in the bowels of the vast new National Archives building outside Washington - nearly two million square feet of futuristic steel and glass construction - an engineer cranks up an old Thomas A. Edison phonograph. A cylindrical disc begins to turn and from its large wooden horn we suddenly hear the scratchy oompah-pah of a marching band striking up a tune at a Knights of Columbus parade in July of 1902.

Nearby sits an ancestor of the modern reel-to-reel tape recorder; it's the very machine that recorded President Harry Truman's famous whistle- stop speeches as he traveled the country by train during his legendary come-from-behind victory in the election of 1948. Instead of capturing sound on magnetic tape, the device stored its data on coils of thin steel wire as fine as fishline. Now some of the wire has rusted, and it occasionally snaps when it is played back through the machine.

This laboratory, in the Department of Special Media Preservation, is a kind of museum of obsolete technology where Archives technicians try to tease information out of modern media that have long vanished from circulation. But the laboratory is more than a curious rag-and-bone shop of technologies past; in many ways, it offers a cautionary vision of the future. The problem of technological obsolescence - of fading words and images locked in odd-looking, out-of-date gizmos - is an even bigger problem for the computer age than for the new media produced in the first half of the 20th century.

One of the great ironies of the information age is that, while the late twentieth century will undoubtedly have recorded more data than any other period in history, it will also almost certainly have lost more information than any previous era. A study done in 1996 by the Archives concluded that, at current levels, it would take approximately 120 years to transfer the backlog of nontextual material (photographs, videos, film, audiotapes, and microfilm) to a more stable format. "And in quite a few cases, we're talking about media that are expected to last about 20 years," said Charles Mayn, the head of the laboratory. Decisions about what to keep and what to discard will be made by default, as large portions will simply deteriorate beyond the point of viability.

. . .

Potentially, the computer age appears to offer the historian's Holy Grail of infinite memory and of instant, permanent access to virtually limitless amounts of information. But as the pace of technological change increases, so does the speed at which each new generation of equipment supplants the last. "Right now, the half-life of most computer technology is between three and five years," said Steve Puglia, a preservation and imaging specialist whose laboratory is just down the hall from Mayn's. In the 1980s, the Archives stored 250,000 documents and images on optical disks - the cutting edge of new technology at the time. "I'm not sure we can play them," said Puglia, explaining that they depend on computer software and hardware that is no longer on the market.

In fact, there appears to be a direct relationship between the newness of technology and its fragility. A librarian at Yale University, Paul Conway, has created a graph going back to ancient Mesopotamia that shows that while the quantity of information being saved has increased exponentially, the durability of media has decreased almost as dramatically. The clay tablets that record the laws of ancient Sumer are still on display in museums around the world. Many medieval illuminated manuscripts written on animal parchment still look as if they were painted and copied yesterday. Paper correspondence from the Renaissance is faded by still in good condition while books printed on modern acidic paper are already turning to dust. Black-and-white photographs may last a couple of centuries, while most color photographs become unstable within 30 or 40 years. Videotapes deteriorate much more quickly than does traditional movie film - generally lasting about 20 years. And the latest generation of digital storage tape is considered safe for about ten years, after which it should be copied to avoid loss of data.

. . .

In theory, computer technology should be more helpful with the storage of textual documents than with the audio and video records of Mayn's dynamic media lab. But so far, it has only compounded the problem. In 1989, a public interest group trying to get information about the Iran- contra scandal successfully sued the White House to prevent it from destroying any electronic records. The result is that all federal agencies must now preserve all their computer files and electronic mail. Because government offices use different kinds of computers, software programs, and formats, just recovering this material has proved to be a logistical nightmare. It took the National Archives two and a half years (and its entire electronic records staff) just to make a secure copy of all the electronic records of the Reagan White House. And it may take years more to make most of them intelligible. "They are gibberish as they currently stand," said Fynette Eaton, who worked at the Archives' Center of Electronic Records before moving over to the Smithsonian Institution.

The beauty of digital technology is that it reduces everything to a series of zeroes and ones - a simple, seemingly universal mathematical language - but unless one has the software that gives meaning to those zeroes and ones, the data is meaningless. The problem of deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs may look like child's play compared with recovering all the information on the hundreds of major software programs that have been discarded during the astonishing transformations of the computer revolution.

The losses from the first decades of the digital age are likely to be considerable. The federal government, with its multitude of departments, agencies, and offices, is a dense thicket of incompatible computer languages and formats - many of them old and obsolete. Many of the records of the National Military Command Center are stored in a database management system (known as NIPS) that IBM no longer supports and that the National Archives has difficulty translating into readable form. The Agent Orange Task Force has been unable to use herbicide records written in NIPS format.

. . .

Full story at:
School of Computing Science, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne,
EMAIL = Brian.Randell () ncl ac uk   PHONE = +44 191 222 7923
FAX = +44 191 222 8232  URL = http://www.cs.ncl.ac.uk/people/brian.randell

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