Bruce Sterling on Mon, 4 May 1998 01:21:42 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> Dead Media Working Note 32.4

[Originally to the Dead Media List <>. -T]

Dead medium:  Dead Digital Documents

From: (Steven Black)

Source:  Business Week magazine, April 20, 1998

(((Steven Black remarks:  The more we think we save, the 
more is actually lost!)))

(((bruces remarks:  here's yet another set of colorful, 
horrific anecdotes on the fragility of digital storage 
media, this  time appearing in the mainstream business 
press.  It seems  very likely that this once-arcane 
problem will slowly  intensify into open scandal.)))


"Surprise == computerized data can decay before you know 

By Marcia Stepanek in New York

"Up to 20% of the information carefully collected on Jet 
Propulsion Laboratory computers during NASA's 1976 Viking 
mission to Mars has been lost. Some POW and MIA records 
and casualty counts from the Vietnam War, stored on 
Defense Dept. computers, can no longer be read. And at 
Pennsylvania State University, all but 14 of some 3,000 
computer files containing student records and school 
history are no longer accessible because of missing or 
outmoded software.


     "The Information Age is creating a digital dilemma. 
For years, computer scientists told us that digital 1s and 
0s could last forever. But now, we're discovering that the 
media we're using to carry our precious information on 
into the future are turning out to be far from eternal == 
so fragile, in fact, that some might not last through the 
decade. More is at risk than government and corporate 
records. The danger extends to cultural legacies: new 
music, early drafts of literature, and academic works 
originate in digital form == without hard copies.


   "'Digital information lasts forever, or five years == 
whichever comes first,' says Jeff Rothenberg, senior 
computer scientist at RAND Corp.

     "Forget forever. Under less-than-optimal storage 
conditions, digital tapes and disks, including CD-ROMs and 
optical drives, might deteriorate about as fast as 
newsprint == in 5 to 10 years. Tests by the National Media 
Lab, a St. Paul (Minn.)-based government and industry 
consortium, show that tapes might preserve data for a 
decade, depending on storage conditions. Disks == whether 
CD-ROMs used for games or the type used by some companies 
to store pension plans == may become unreadable in five 

     "For consumers, the biggest worry is CD-ROMs. Unlike 
paper records, CD-ROMs often don't show decay until it's 
too late. Experts are just beginning to realize that stray 
magnetic fields, oxidation, humidity, and material decay 
can quickly erase the information stored on them.  

     "Says Robert Stein, founder of New York-based Voyager 
Co., which makes commercial CD-ROM books and games:  'CDs 
have a tendency to degrade much faster than anybody, at 
least in the companies that make them, is willing to 
predict.' Stein doesn't expect the CD-ROMs Voyager sells 
to last more than 5 or 10 years, and neither, he says, 
should customers.

     "There's another problem: the unrelenting pace of 
technology. Chances are good that the software needed to 
get at much of today's data might not be readily available 
in 10 years.  Anyone who has tried wrestling information 
from a 5 1/4-inch floppy disk knows that.  Just ask 
scientists conducting rain forest research. Satellite 
photos of the Amazon Basin taken in the 1970s == data 
critical to establishing deforestation trends == are 
trapped on indecipherable magnetic tapes no longer on the 

    "But even keeping a step ahead of data decay and 
software obsolescence is no guarantee of escaping the 
problem. Companies spending heavily on sophisticated new 
computers and software to beat the technology reaper say 
they're beginning to run into a whole new problem. All too 
often, when they transfer information from one aging media 
or computer system to a newer one, not all bits make the 

     "Sometimes, just a footnote or spreadsheet is lost. 
Other times, whole categories of data evaporate. Says 
Rothenberg: 'It's like playing the child's game of
Telephone. It doesn't take many translations from one 
media to another before you have lost significant aspects 
of the original data.'

     "The Food & Drug Administration reports that some 
pharmaceutical companies are discovering errors as they 
copy drug-testing data that back up claims of long-term 
product safety and effectiveness. In several recent cases 
involving data transfers from Unix computers to systems 
running Microsoft's Windows NT operating system, blood-
pressure numbers were randomly off by up to eight digits 
from those in original records, FDA and company data 
specialists report.

     "Sophisticated software can catch most of the errors, 
but 'not all the time,' says Rone Lewis, vice-president of 
business development of Surety Technologies, a data 
recovery and migration firm. 

    "Some companies fear the problem could expose them to 
lawsuits. 'In our litigation-prone age, it's harder to 
defend yourself if you're losing parts of your records 
when you migrate them,' says Henry Perritt, dean
of Chicago Kent College of Law.


    "Ray Paddock, a director for Storage Technology Corp., 
says the problem is so bad for some of his clients that 
they're creating new databases just to decipher the data 
they have on tape and disks. Others, he says, are simply 
keeping the old version of the software used to create 

     "NO STANDARDS. Meanwhile, the government is looking 
into establishing durability standards for digital media. 
A task force == including representatives of Eastman 
Kodak, IBM, and archivists at leading museums and 
universities == has agreed on a digital longevity test 
ultimately aimed at increasing the life span of CD-ROMs 
and other types of digital media. The only problem: So 
far, no manufacturer has tested its products using the 
age-test created by the task force. And the group is still 
working on a standard for magnetic tape.

     "Others are at work on new technologies to solve the 
problem. NORSAM Technologies in Los Alamos, N.M., for 
example, is promoting its HD-Rosetta project, which 
permanently stores historical documents == but only if 
they are converted from digital back to analog recording 

     "But at least one remedy being offered by researchers 
sounds a lot more like the distant past than the future: 
Cobblestone Software Inc. in Lexington, Mass., is 
promoting PaperDisk, which uses paper to print out complex 
patterns of dots and dashes representing digitized files. 
Cobblestone President Tom Antognini claims it should last 
for centuries == or about as long as old-fashioned, high-
quality paper."

Steven Black  (
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