Monday, September 01, 2008

archives in long time: Atoms vs. Bits

originally posted on iSchool, i202 course blog

In ‘everything is miscellaneous’, David Weinberger’ argues the benefits of Bits over Atoms. He points out that bits can be duplicated without effort and that they can be re-organized instantaneously to conform to our immediate contexts.

Apart from pointing at this inherent mutability of bits, he refers to the fact that digital information is easier to preserve. This is, in a certain marginal sense contradicted by a very interesting project to preserve a snapshot of all human languages. The Rosetta Project, run by The Long Now Foundation and The National Science Foundation is a collaborative effort to create a record of all human languages from 02000 to 12000.

This near permanent record, apart from being an online archive is a physical artifact designed for long term storage. The design of their Rosetta Stone is very intriguing. It is not digital, and is designed to be read without the need for any specific devices. The Stone is human readable, and has inscribed on one side, in many languages - “Languages of the World: This is an archive of over 1,500 human languages assembled in the year 02008 C.E. Magnify 1,000 times to find over 13,000 pages of language documentation.”

It is interesting to note of the design considerations and concerns change when designing for Long time. Kevin Kelly, a participant designer (and founder of Wired) points to some of the issues on his blog. Good quality, properly stored paper can easily last for 2000 years. Moreover we can be quite sure, that it will be understandable and accessible after that time. On the other hand

Front of the Rosetta DiskPages stored on plastic DVDs are neither stable over the very long term, nor readable over the long term. Unless digital information is ceaselessly migrated from one fading medium to another new one, it will quickly cease to be accessible. Two decades ago the floppy disk was ubiquitous. Most personal digital information then was stored on this format. Today, any information stored only on a floppy disk is essentially gone. Imagine the incompatibility of today’s DVD in 1,000 years.”

Mentioned by Vannevar Bush in his 1945 paper, the most appropriate technology for long term storage is still micro-etched film. The composition (and cost) of the film obviously changes based on how important the data is. The Long Now Rosetta Stone contains 350,000 pages of text written in 1000 languages, designed by linguists are inscribed onto a nickel cast of a micro-etch silicon mold. It comes with a built in magnifying glass. They came up with this design as part of the discussions on Managing Time Continuity. Following the archiving principle of LOCKS (Lots of copies, Keep ‘em Safe) the project is distributing copies of the disk globally. They have also placed one in space - on the Rosetta Space Probe, that will sometime in the future land on a comet, leaving the disk to circle around the sun for many many years to come.

Obviously this is not the first attempt to preserve human language and culture for posterity. Other interesting projects are namely the Crypt of Civilization, placed in a underground bunker in Atlanta, Georgia; The Westinghouse Time Capsules and the popular (but short-timed) Yahoo! Time Capsule designed by Jonathan Harris.


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