You read from time to time about the discovery, usually by a lay person while cleaning out an attic (or going through a trunk purchased at a flea market or auction), of some historic treasure – letters written by Napoleon to Josephine, for example. Such a find is then carefully examined by handwriting experts, the paper is carbon dated and analyzed, the formulation of the ink is tested against known examples etc., then a determination is made as to authenticity.
Fast forward 50 or 100 years and tell me what you think will happen when such a person finds a shoe box filled with computer floppy disks? Even if the person is interested, there is nothing immediately recognizable about the disks or what they might contain. There are other problems – is the data encoded as Octal, BCD, EBCDIC, Hexadecimal, ASCII? Was the data produced using WordStar, Word, XyWrite, or something else? Is it even readable anymore without special equipment to extract the weakened encoding? Where would such a person find a floppy disk drive that matched the physical media? Are these the long lost manuscripts of some famous 1990’s author? Were the documents encrypted? What encryption algorithm was used and how long is the key? Crackable? What about authenticity? Digital Signatures? And today, just how many family photos are being stored on various and sundry media?
I would like to think the finder could trot on down to his/her local “Digital Antiquities Shop” for the discovery process, but that’s probably wishful thinking. The pace of change in terms of equipment, formats and applications available today is frightening. What is authenticity in such situations? Digitally speaking, you can create and/or alter anything. Governments certainly know this. Think twice when someone begins a public briefing with the comment, “This digital photograph shows exactly…”
Are we destroying our history as fast as we create it by making its digital storage obsolete in 2-3 year cycles? This must be worrying archivists and librarians – at least I hope so. Email is convenient, fast and cheap. Who’s saving it? Where? Why? May I have access?
Papyrus and its derivatives held up for thousands of years. What exactly are we doing to safeguard 0’s and 1’s on magnetic media? Does the average user have any idea how transitory such digital storage is?
I was in the computer business a long time, and I know how valuable computers can be, but in terms of information persistence and archiving we are letting things run out of control. Something’s gone very wrong, I think.