This article raises an interesting question: how can we preserve access to all the digital contents we are creating today. As you all know, technologies evolved -- and fast. How will you read an e-mail or an MP3 file twenty years from now? Maybe in a museum, maybe nowhere.
Here is a description of the problem.
Paper documents last for hundreds of years, but more and more of what matters to us is digitally produced, and we canít guarantee that any of it will be usable 100, or 10, or even five years from now.
We can count on paper documents to last 500 years or longer, barring fire, flood or acts of God. But digital things, be they documents, photographs or video, are all created in a language meant for a specific piece of hardware; and neither computer languages nor machines age well. The amount of material at risk is exploding: the volume of business-related e-mail is expected to rise from 2.6 trillion messages per year in 2001 to 5.9 trillion by 2005, according to IDC, an information technology analysis firm. Maybe most of those messages deserve to be rendered unreadable, but critical documents and correspondence from government and private institutions are in just as much danger of digital obsolescence as spam.
Then there are databases, and software, and images, all of which are in a constant state of change: JPEG, for example, the standard many digital-camera users rely on to store family photos, is already in the process of being outmoded by JPEG 2000, a higher-quality compression standard.
So, what can we do?
Proposed solutions include migration, which consists of updating or sometimes entirely rewriting old files to run on new hardware; emulation, a way of mimicking older hardware so that old software and files donít have to be rewritten in order to run on new machines; and more recently, encapsulation, a way of wrapping an electronic document in a digital envelope that explains, in simple terms, how to re-create the software, hardware or operating systems needed to decode whatís inside.
These solutions all face the same problem. They must continually be updated, and of course, this is expensive.
A newly proposed solution, ironically enough, might make use of a very old technology: paper itself. Not to preserve all the digital documents we are creating in hard copy, but rather to preserve the specifications for a decoding mechanism -- a kind of "universal computer" defined by a few hundred lines of software code -- that will allow the documents to be deciphered in the future. Archived on paper and across the Internet, the mechanism would be guaranteed to survive for centuries.
This is an excellent -- but long -- article. Please take some time to read it this coming weekend.
Source: Claire Tristram, MIT Technology Review, October 2002 Issue