When we look at humans and their progress, it is the story of information which was condensed to become human-knowledge. It is easy to overlook the tools invented along the way to preserve and retain this knowledge easily. We have gone from writing letters on sand and mud tablets, to storing entire libraries within a grain of sand. Each one of these tools of storing information has its benefits and drawbacks – the latter is often neglected only until the next new medium and method becomes available.
Atleast for the things in the physical realm – paper, sculptures, carvings have a longer chance of surviving if they find the right environment. Even in its degradation – physical data, I feel, is more forgiving. There is real effort involved in destroying information represented in a tangible medium. More time, if not less, is also required to create this information in the first place. It is possible to salvage from physical ruins which could only be created by thousands over decades, to see traces of drawings that once a playful child scratched on a rock, to find an act embedded on a path or the foundation of a house as a footprint, or smoothened by wear – all of these convey some part of the information about that place and time. The physical world provides a greater range of media to leave information into – and it is always available and being written on.
Language is that offshoot of the physical realm towards abstraction, which is the most familiar to us. Abstraction offers speed, efficiency and fluidity, but also relies on more complicated and specific tools to create and unpack it. The tools themselves can be lost, or become unrecognizable. Even within language, one could make a scale from what is the most tangible (writing) to what is the most intangible (speech) – another reason why we might have a greater number of written material available to us (even if we might not interpret it correctly) than spoken languages – this applies especially to the pre-electronic media era. Interestingly, the electronic media could be considered to be another distant cousin of language itself. This abstract medium offers the most utility in storing the more intangible of our physical experiences (like sound and vision).
Digital data, to me, is fragile. And even though it enamours and offers a great convenience of packing so much information available at the speed of light, it stands on a structure which doesn’t take much to fail. It is not just the issue of data’s validity and accessibility, but also of the methods to retrieve it. Firstly, data in itself can get destroyed because of environmental factors and physical damage to the storage medium – both of these, even at a reduced rate can cause the data to decay to a point of becoming completely unreadable or inaccessible. And even if these factors are being accounted for, there is always the common risk of hack attacks, password lockouts, overwrites and accidental deletions. Not that the equivalents of these risks do not exist for physical media, the intangibility here allows for a greater level of ease for all of these to occur. And then there is also the physical world this intangibility relies on. It takes one mass-hack, power grid failure, a skipped backup, a broken phone, a mysterious account shutdown or just a forgotten password to realize how distanced we might be from this realm than we really think. Just like language, digital data offers an ease to transmit information compared to other physical media, but it can also quickly die out if there is no one left around to speak or understand it – this is the case of obsolete software and code, where we lack the tools and the hardware to even read the data from just a couple of years back.
Another way information is lost, especially at a larger scale of availability, is when it becomes too common. In this scenario, everyone assumes that someone else will have the data saved, but no one really does. This is becoming frequently visible in the digital domain as large networks like the internet begin to age. Closely related to this information loss is the common practice of removal on purpose.
But all of these issues are known, and we are still riding on trust, now attempting to decentralize data storage – which might just be the best possible way for us to retain the information we are generating at an ever increasing rate. Most of us do not think that the most personal of our chats, memories, movements, images, secrets and thoughts are residing on multiple hardddisks across the world, hooked in and being swapped out constantly in a warehouse.
But, I also think of an unknown genius of our times, meeting an untimely death, leaving behind thoughts and ideas locked up in a disk or a cloud account. These will never be revealed to others even when some services allow for retrieval, not many will bother and sifting through a person’s lifetime’s worth of data will atleast take another lifetime. His ideas would have had some fighting chance to be found, if they were written up in a diary and hidden in a hole in the wall.
If you are for maintaining your own or humankind’s legacy, and in preserving it, you will not enjoy the ride that’s ahead – no doubt that the tools and media will definitely improve, but a lot would have already been lost by then and inbetween the increments. If you are concerned about privacy, you can take comfort in the fact that your data will eventually be lost. Someday, this post too would become obsolete enough to be moved to a sole backup disk which is not cared for enough, and all that I have written here will be lost.