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How Much Does That Cool New Toy Really Cost? A Corrective View of Technology

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An extensive program of
copying works from around the known world endowed the celebrated library at
Alexandria, Egypt, with a collection of about half a million manuscripts. When
a Muslim army took the city in 640 ce,
a caliph reasoned that any document that agreed with the Koran was redundant,
and any that contradicted it was blasphemous. He ordered the library destroyed.

 

Historians wince at the thought of
the priceless manuscripts lost to us as a result, but we have our own version
of this story. Digital information is slipping through our fingers—not
quickly in an inferno, but gradually and relentlessly all around us. CDs,
disks, and tapes all have a surprisingly short lifetime. In theory, digital is
forever, but in practice, our records are more short-lived than they’ve ever
been.

 

In 1086, 20 years after William of
Normandy conquered England in the Battle of Hastings, he commissioned the
survey of his new dominion, now known as the Doomsday Book. On the book’s 900th
anniversary, the BBC unveiled a £2.5 million updated version. With digitized
photos, maps, video, and text—in all, contributions from about a million
people—it was expected to stand next to its parchment predecessor as a
fundamental piece of scholarship.

 

And yet the multimedia version is
now unusable. Only a few of the custom PCs developed for the project still
exist, and its 12-inch videodiscs are unreadable on any other device. A
research project was necessary to salvage the data and store it in a more
accessible format.

 

Problem solved? Hardly. No digital
format will be readable forever, and preserving this data will be an ongoing
task of copying and reformatting to adapt to changing technology. That’s a lot
of fuss when the original Doomsday Book, almost a millennium old, sits well
preserved and available to researchers in a Public Record Office in London.

 

We turn from this virtual time
capsule to a traditional one to see another example of the fragility of high
technology. The New
York Times
completed its end-of-the-millennium time capsule in
1999. Because the creators wanted their “<span
style=’font-size:11.0pt’>Times
Capsule” to remain sealed for
1,000 years, the artifacts’ stability was especially important. A complete copy
of the year’s New
York Times
would be an obvious addition. It would be an
afternoon’s work to copy that onto a handful of CD-ROMs and toss them in with
the rest of the artifacts. Barring any sort of catastrophe, civilization will
continue to advance, and reading our laughably primitive CDs should be child’s
play for the people of the year 3000, right?

 

Not quite. The advanced people of
1,000 years hence wouldn’t even get the chance to interpret them, because CDs
have a lifetime of only a few decades; after 1,000 years, they might as well
have been put in there blank. Paper, even newsprint, is readable for much
longer than a disc. As the New York Times Magazine noted about the problem of
digital evaporation: “Almost everything today gets recorded, yet almost nothing
will survive.”

 

Digital storage has some
tremendous advantages over its analog equivalent. In practice, however, tapes,
disks, CDs, and other media are impermanent repositories for digital data. The
inevitable degradation of CDs as the surface oxidizes has been called “CD rot.”
The magnetic bits on tape and disk also gradually fail as their tiny magnetic
fields fade. There is another danger. Magnets cover refrigerators and the
occasional filing cabinet, they’re often unexpected features on the backs of
kitchen timers and other gadgets, and they’re even in telephone speakers. A
magnet needs only a moment near a floppy disk or credit-card magnetic strip to
cause damage.

 

Even if the media—floppy
disk, tape, and so on—are in good condition, they require a machine to
read the data. Unfortunately, hundreds of models of disk readers and tape
drives are now obsolete, so not only must files be copied to refresh the data,
but storage media may need to be updated.

 

A third problem with accessing old
digital records is the impermanent nature of the format in which the data is
stored. Whether a data format is proprietary, like Microsoft Word’s document
file (.doc) or an open standard, like the JPEG format (.jpg) used for images,
it may be in vogue for a while, but eventually become obsolete.

 

In perhaps the ultimate irony of
vanishing digital data, we’ve already lost much of the history of the World
Wide Web. Many early Web sites have disappeared like extinct species. Most of
the rest have changed their character over time. Several projects now involve
striving to archive the Web, but much has already been lost.

Needless to say, even the present
Web is impermanent.

 

The broader challenge is, of
course, dependence on technology.

 

Imagine the following science-fiction
scenario. You wake up one morning to what appears to be life as usual but soon
realize a startling truth: everyone else is gone. There’s no one anywhere. All
the buildings and other evidence of civilization are just as you remember them,
but you’re all that remains of the population. You wonder what happened to the
others—maybe they were spirited away by aliens—but you don’t have
the luxury of speculating on the fate of your missing neighbors. You must focus
on your own predicament.

 

At first glance, survival seems
straightforward. You’re in a looter’s paradise, with stores full of food,
clothes, and even entertainment. There’s no one to stop you from taking what
you need. Then a darker reality becomes apparent a few hours later when the
power fails. The food in stores begins to spoil, and there is no one to
replenish it. Gasoline pumps stop working. Tap water runs out. You’re not sure
how much longer the natural gas that heats your home will last. The future
begins to look a lot more primitive.

 

Luckily, it would take a
catastrophe to produce this situation. But less dramatic scenarios illustrate
the same point.

 

Imagine, for a moment, that you
are shopping during a power failure. You make it to the store past the
(nonworking) traffic lights, enter through the (nonworking) automatic doors,
stumble around in the dark, find a cashier willing to add up the purchases
manually, and even if you did remember to bring cash, the bar code reader
doesn’t work. How will they know what to charge?

 

Many of us offload onto a laptop.
It can hold our phone book, notebook, calendar, and other peripheral notes and
reminders, plus all the files that make up one’s daily business life.
Everything is consolidated in one convenient place. But it’s also a vulnerable
place, and the convenience is forgotten when the laptop breaks, is
incapacitated by a virus, or gets stolen. According to the 2002 Computer
Security Institute/FBI survey, victims of the theft of a business laptop
estimated their financial loss to be close to $100,000 on average (imagine
walking around with your laptop case stuffed with its equivalent in cash rather
than your laptop).

 

The theft can mean the loss of
confidential company data, credit-card or bank information, and so on, but the
clever thief may also have the passwords to access the company intranet and do
even more damage. And, of course, you have the unwanted task of recreating the
laptop’s information as completely as possible. A PDA is a similar
concentration of valuable but vulnerable information.

 

Consider simpler failures. You
find yourself without your cell phone— and its phone book. Want to use
mine? Unfortunately, it won’t have those recorded phone numbers. Some car
radios can display a station’s call letters instead of its frequency. That’s a
nice feature, until you want to select your favorite station on a different
radio and realize that you now remember only the call letters.

 

Computers and other intelligent
gadgets are a handy place to offload your files and some of your
memory—until that technology is gone.

 

Bob Seidensticker is the
author of Future Hype:
The Myths of Technology Change and Well-Tempered Digital Design
.
During his 25 years in the technology industry, he worked at IBM and Microsoft,
among other companies.

 

The article is adapted fromFuture Hype,
a 2006 title from Berrett-Koehler Publishers. To order the book or learn more,
visit www.bkconnection.com.

 

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