As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was once the editor of the Low-End User eZine and there are plans to post the old issues on the web. In order to do this, the old files must be converted to html. This proved surprisingly challenging.
As noted before, I had kept the original files on floppy disks. Back in those ancient days, that was about the only removable medium I could afford. There were other types of removable storage devices such as those made by Syquest and at the end of the LEU’s life, Iomega got into the game with its famous Zip Drive.
As most people have noticed, the majority of modern PCs and all Macs are devoid of floppy disk drives. Fortunately, I still have some old Macs (a Beige Tower G3 and a PowerBook 5300cs) that have floppy drives. So, I was able to get the files onto the Beige G3. Once I got the files there, there was the problem of getting the files into a usable format. Using ResEdit, I was able to determine that some of the files had been compressed with Disk Doubler. I no longer had that software and the newest version of Stuffit did not recognize the file format. Fortunately, I had an old version of the software that did work. Some of the files were in DocMaker format, others in eDoc format and some in Macintosh Wordperfect 3.5 format. Some were even in MacWrite II format-truly an ancient program. Eventually I was able to get most of the files opened and converted.
I was watching the History Channel while doing this and started thinking about the matter from an historical perspective. In my case, I was working with technology I was familiar with as well as old software I had once used. Yet, it was still a challenge to recover the information. I was even left with one file I simply could not open.
Now, imagine the plight of archeologists in th e future. Most of our information is now kept in electronic form or stored on media that requires a specific sort of machine to read it (such as a Blu-Ray drive). This presents various problems for those who will be trying to sort out the history of our time.
First, there is the problem of the media surviving. Clay tablets, which are very low tech, can survive hundreds, perhaps thousands of years buried in a tomb. Stone carvings can endure for as long as the rock lasts-quite some time indeed. In contrast, CDs, hard drives and USB keys will not last very long. As such, future archeologists might find little more than worthless plastic and metal. As such, if we want to create records that last, we will need to find a new (or old) way to preserve them.
Second, there is the problem of reading the media. Just a short while ago, the 5.25 floppy disk was standard. These days, it would be all but impossible to find a way to get a modern computer to read such a disk. The 3.5 inch floppy disk is still around, but it is difficult to find a modern computer that has a built in drive for such disks. Imagine how much technology will change over the next century, two centuries and so on. If it is difficult finding a way to read media that was standard just a few years ago, imagine how hard it will be in the future. Perhaps future archeologists will build their own custom machines to read such media-assuming they will be able to find out how to do so. As such, this is also a problem we’ll need to deal with to ensure that we can pass on an historical record.
Third, there is the problem of file compatibility. I have files in a variety of formats that are now long obsolete. For example, I still have MacWrite and MacPaint files. People often complain that the current version of their software cannot open the files created by the previous version. Just imagine what it will be like a century or two from now. Even if the media survives and even if the hardware can be found to read the media, there is still the problem of being able to open the files.
Perhaps, as so often happens in sci-fi, there will be amazing technology that can read any media and translate any file format. For example, on StarGate Atlantis, people are able to plug their laptops into the Ancient systems and just make them work. As another example, aliens on Star Trek were often able to just scan human ships and read all the data in the computer records.
More likely, this won’t happen. As such, we will need to take steps to ensure that our important information is preserved in a format that will be comprehensible and in a media that will survive. Stone tablets seem to be the ideal medium. 🙂