Digital disasters

What would happen if we had a digital disaster? Try to imagine a situation where all or most of our information has been destroyed on all global networks. It may seem unlikely but it’s not entirely impossible as Luciana Duranti, then a professor at the University of British Columbia School of Library, Archival, and Information Sciences, suggested to reporter Mike Roberts in a 2006 interview. She cited a few examples of what we had already lost, (excerpted from my March 9, 2010 posting)

… she commented about the memories we had already lost. From the article,

Alas, she says, every day something else is irretrievably lost.

The research records of the U.S. Marines for the past 25 years? Gone.

East German land-survey records vital to the reunification of Germany? Toast.

A piece of digital interactive music recorded by Canadian composer Keith Hamel just eight years ago?

“Inaccessible, over, finito,” says Duranti, educated in her native Italy and a UBC prof since 1987.

Duranti, director of InterPARES (International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems), an international cyber-preservation project comprising 20 countries and 60 global archivists, says original documentation is a thing of the past.

Glyn Moody’s March 5, 2012 posting on Techdirt notes a recent attempt to address the possible loss of ‘memory’ along with other issues specific to the digitization of information (I have removed links),

But there’s a problem: as more people turn to digital books as their preferred way of consuming text, libraries are starting to throw out their physical copies. Some, because nobody reads them much these days; some, because they take up too much space, and cost too much to keep; some, even on the grounds that Google has already scanned the book, and so the physical copy isn’t needed. Whatever the underlying reason, the natural assumption that we can always go back to traditional libraries to digitize or re-scan works is looking increasingly dubious.

Fortunately, Brewster Kahle, the man behind the Alexa Web traffic and ranking company (named after the Library of Alexandria, and sold to Amazon), and the Internet Archive — itself a kind of digital Library of Alexandria — has spotted the danger, and is now creating yet another ambitious library, this time of physical books …

For some reason this all reminded me of a Canticle for Leibowitz, a book I read many years ago and remember chiefly as a warning that information can be lost. There’s more about the book here. As for Kahle’s plan, I wish him the best of luck.

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  1. Pingback: NanoRosetta; a Kickstarter archiving project for the human genome « FrogHeart

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