Our disappearing, digitised civilisation

“I still have 100s of computer programs I wrote for ZX Spectrum from 1983-85 that are on magnetic cassette tapes melting again in my attic, inc my ‘chatbot,’ and other programs from 1985-87 stored on an 8″ magnetic reel. All less readable already than Egyptian hieroglyphics.” I D Pearson

There are now around 1.8 billion photographs taken a day.

Our lives are more documented and detailed than any generation, or civilisation that came before us.

And yet, almost all the detail of our contemporary human civilisation are digitised, not tangible.

Our music, pictures — even our research and information is stored digitally. We seldom print our photographs. We store our company records on hard drives, not in ring binder files. We keep our music on our phones, not on records.

And here’s the thing with digital data, it disappears.

Digital files become obsolete, and quickly. Data stored on cassette or video tapes will soon become completely unretrievable. Those family videos we recorded in the 1980s may already be unsalvageable. The digital file formats we store our memories in today are likely to go the same way.

The truth is, the Silent Generation’s old photographic slides are very likely to outlast our own family albums, stored on obsolete hard-drives and folders on long-forgotten laptops.

Of course, the same applies to scientific and academic knowledge — human knowledge used to be written down on scrolls, then later, printed in books, preserved in libraries,. Now, increasingly, the wealth of human knowledge and history is stored on computer servers.

This leads to the next logical observation, that technical obsoletism is only one issue with our digital memories. There is also the very real possibility that hackers or even governments can change or erase history by overwriting facts and figures with their preferred versions.

Highly sophisticated quantum computing technology quantum computing technology is already threatening today’s data in this way.

“Hackers, with many of them supported by nation-states, are actively skimming and stealing encrypted data right now, even though it would take them thousands of years to crack it with current technology. But they aren’t even trying to go that route. Instead, they’re storing data in anticipation that a quantum machine in the near future can crack it wide open, long before anyone can perfect quantum-resistant encryption. Their strategy is to steal data now, and then read it later.”  ~ John Breeden, DefenceOne.com

Of course, there are ways to combat our digital decline. For instance, the University of Southhampton has developed “Eternal 5D Data Storage,” using nanocrystal glass disks that can store up to 360 terabytes of data for “up to a billion years”. (You can see a technical explanation more of how this technology works here.)

Enteral 5D Data Storage crystals containing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawkins attempt to preserve the best of humanity for eternity.

Or we could just make sure we keep tangible offline hard copies of the information and memories that make us who we are.

But the question remains: When everything is digitised and disposable will anything remain of us for distant future generations to find?








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