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Digital Data

June 5, 2001

A public radio commentary

A friend of mine recently bought a digital camera to record the life of his newly born daughter. His goal is to create a permanent record of her life, something she can enjoy years from now. But how permanent will this be? And how truthful a record will it be for historians of the future?

The answer is that digital recordings will likely be neither permanent nor trustworthy. To see why note how you view digital photos or listen to music. To see or hear them you need a special machine - a CD player or a personal computer. I know how common those machines are today, but the key word is today.

Visit the National Archives in Washington, D.C. and you'll see the problem. They have a Department of Special Media Preservation, nearly a museum of obsolete technology. Here engineers try to listen to early records made of glass, or audio tape made of thin wire. Even worse, they are faced with millions of documents created and stored on now obsolete computer systems. The documents are unreadable unless they rebuild these ancient computers. Will your computer, CD player or digital camera still work years from now? Probably not.

Think of data created only fifteen years ago; it was recorded on five and a half inch floppies, which most computers can no longer even read now. And what about the data itself: Won't a CD or a digital tape always be around? The answer seems to be no. Some manufacturers say CDs will last ten to fifteen years, some experts think it will be about forty years, but this is for the CDs you buy at the music store. The CDs you might burn at home are made differently and their lifetimes are even shorter.

And what of digital video tapes? Likely even worse: They must be stored correctly to survive heat and humidity. Even if all of the tapes and disks lasted and we had computers to read them, how accurate a record would they be?

Today with a home computer you can easily change photos - moving bits and pieces here and there to create a fake photo no one can detect. Digital makes things easy to tamper with, unlike traditional photographs, which took great skill to be faked. So as a society we may either leave no track record - all our history tied up in obsolete and decaying technology, and what is left may not be trusted.

What is the solution? Well, I visited our university archivist and asked him. His answer: Etch it in steel or stone, bake letters into clay, or even use paper. If you want to be remembered write a book and have it published. Thousands of copies of it will exist in libraries around the world; and it will be accessible to anyone without equipment.

Copyright 2001 William S. Hammack Enterprises