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The downfall of digital storage [New Straits Time (Malaysia)]
[January 05, 2014]

The downfall of digital storage [New Straits Time (Malaysia)]

(New Straits Time (Malaysia) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) THE past is another place, another speech, another country.

In the British Museum are tablets that record a great classic poem of world literature. They survived the destruction of their host library, in the palace of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal when Nineveh (in what is now northern Iraq) was sacked by the Medes nearly 3,000 years ago. The poem was written in Cuneiform, a script developed in southern Iraq even earlier, some 2,000 years before the birth of Ashurbanipal.

George Smith, a 19th century curator at the British Museum, was so overjoyed by his success with its decoding that he thought that simply announcing it was not enough; he astonished the crowd even more by jumping and rushing about in the room and stripping himself of his apparel.

Now in our age of digital technology, the prospect looks pretty thin for future Smiths in the cloisters of learning to be able to strip themselves of the trappings of this material world. "What is the problem?" a friend once contradicted me over a related matter. "All our information are now stored in ones and zeros, and digital storage will be the same for today, tomorrow and for evermore." Not so.

You will probably have in the back of your drawer a stack of old floppies and even deeper, a stack of even older ones, even broader. They may have stored a novel you finished ten years ago, family photos or some scraps of information that you wanted to keep for your issues and thereafter.

Even now there are experts in big information houses who are contemplating the same problem. This information age has many ironies. "One of the great ironies is that," says author Alexander Stille in the online Lost magazine, "while the late 20th century will undoubtedly have recorded more data than any other period in history, it will also almost certainly have lost more information than any previous era".

We look now and wonder in various museums the world over at old parchments, clay tablets and weather-worn stelae and ponder them like our cryptic crossword puzzles. Medieval Muslim scholars deciphered some of the hieroglyphs, the Rosetta Stone provided even more answers. But modern records are not in discernible shapes or etched by hand-held tools - they are there as intangible as our distant past, their keys thrown out with the arrival of new driver systems, newer and smaller hardware.

Stille quotes Charles Mayn of the Department of Special Media Preservation at the National Archives outside Washington. "We have a lot of these from the late 1980s and even the mid-1990s that can't be played at all," says Mayn, holding a little data recording tape from the last century.

The time-cost of transferring all the analogue or printed data that we have now in all the libraries of the world will take more than a hundred years; but technology changes quicker than our ability to work, and then all the voices fade and writings will become indelible, and will be lost forever.

If Ashurbanipal had recorded in digital format, we will not know Gilgamesh now. In the early days of digital I remember a librarian who proudly told us that he had transferred the newspaper archive onto disks. "Saved us a lot of storage space," he said. "We've got rid of all the old newspapers." I think I felt a sudden pain in my belly.

In the southern flank of the Palace of Westminster (as it is now) stands a tall tower that has acres of space within it and below. In it is stored all the Acts of Parliament in the original - dust and dirt in recent typeface and in ancient scrawl. They are old, most of them, but even if they are in shreds, we can still read the parts that are still visible, and so a fragment, a peek, at history. If digital information goes corrupt, it is corrupted entirely and no amount of peeking or teasing will bring the old voices back to you.

Remembering and forgetting are the twin sisters of our life. What we remember and what forget rule us and shape us; sometimes it is better to forget completely, but overall, it is better to remember, if only to know why we want to forget at all.

In our age, we are overwhelmed with everything there is to gather in bits and bytes and yet we know little. Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, a professor at Oxford's Internet Institute worries about another aspect of digital storage, that it may degrade out what he calls "institutions of memory" - museums of this and that and well, physical archives and libraries, too, I would say.

Now storage places, Google for instance, are talking of giving expiration dates for some of their stored material. The professor is not altogether unhappy about this, but as we rely more on digital storage and digital storage is thinking of disposable memory, I fear.

This may be their commercial way of looking at this for digital storage of such vastness does not come free. Data centres may consume more electricity in major towns now than all their hospitals.

* (c) 2014 ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved.

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