Tuesday, September 19, 2006

LA Times, Sept. 13/06

I wouldn't ordinarily do this, but I think people should see this...other than the thousands (or millions) that read the LA Times. Also because Xena and w.t. have been having this technology conversation in the comments sections. I have a friend who pointed out to me a few years ago that our information storage systems have become more and more ephemeral over the millennia...from commandments etched on stone tablets to digital commands that have no meaning outside of the software that understands them. Read this article and feel the fear. Websites, blogs, MS Word, whatever...all only an electronic blip away from oblivion. When Jane Jacobs talks about the Dark Age ahead, how we can forget the things we knew, lose the culture we built, this could well be part of it.


Unable to Repeat the Past
Storing information is easier than ever, but it's also never been so easy to lose it -- forever. We could end up with a modern history gap.
By Charles Piller
Times Staff Writer

September 13, 2006

Carter G. Walker remembers the day her memories vanished.

After sending an e-mail to her aunt, the Montana freelance writer stepped away from the computer to make a grilled-cheese sandwich. She returned a few minutes later to a black screen. Data recovery experts did what they could, but the hard drive was beyond saving — as were the precious moments Walker had entrusted to it.

"All my pregnancy pictures are gone. The video from my first daughter's first couple of days is gone," Walker said. "It was like a piece of my brain was cut out."

Walker's digital amnesia has become a frustratingly common part of life. Computers make storing personal letters, family pictures and home movies more convenient than ever. But those captured moments can disappear with a few errant mouse clicks — or for no apparent reason at all.

It's not just household memories at risk. Professional archivists, those charged with preserving the details of society, tell a grim joke: Billions of digitized snapshots, Hollywood movies and government annals, they say, "will last forever, or five years, whichever comes first."

Socrates described memory as "a block of wax … the mother of the muses. But when the image is effaced, or cannot be taken, then we forget and do not know."

Digital storage methods, although vastly more capacious than the paper they are rapidly replacing, have proved the softest wax. Heat and humidity can destroy computer disks and tapes in as little as a year. Computers can break down and software often becomes unusable in a few years. A storage format can quickly become obsolete, making the information it holds effectively inaccessible.

No one has compiled an inventory of lost records, but archivists regularly stumble upon worrisome examples. Reports detailing the military's spraying of the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam, needed for research and medical care, were obliterated. Census data from the 1960s through 1980s disappeared. A multitude of electronic voting records vanished without a trace.

Records considered at risk by the National Archives include diagrams and maps needed to secure the nuclear stockpile and policy documents used to inform partners in the war on terror. Much like global warming, the archive problem emerged suddenly, its effects remain murky and the brunt of its effect will be felt by future generations. The era we are living in could become a gap in history.

"If we don't solve the problem, our time will not become part of the past," said Kenneth Thibodaux, who directs electronic records preservation for the National Archives. "It will largely vanish."

Humans have long imprinted collective memories on available objects, inscribing stone slabs, marking paper, etching paraffin cylinders and finally encoding computer disks. Chinese astronomers of the Shang Dynasty etched the words "three flames ate the sun" onto an ox scapula to pass on their celestial observations.

Thirty-two centuries later, that "oracle bone" confirmed for today's scientists an ancient eclipse, which allowed them to recalibrate their understanding of how the sun affects the Earth's spin.

Suppose those early stargazers had scratched out their findings in secret code on a mud flat. In effect, that's what NASA did when it used digital tape to store spaceflight data from the 1960s and 1970s. The observations could have helped unravel today's climate change and deforestation mysteries, but by the 1990s most of the tape had degraded beyond recovery.

Federal practices haven't improved much since then. Leading archivists said that the records of George W. Bush's presidency would probably be far less complete than those of Abraham Lincoln's.

In Lincoln's day, scribes vigilantly penned events and actions momentous or minute. Trusted records were viewed as essential to legitimize government and preserve citizens' rights. The bureaucracy generated a fairly complete record of what the government did, including voluminous chronicles of the Civil War.

Future historians will have a harder time with Iraq war records, created in several digital formats, some of which are already obsolete, said David Bearman, president of Archives & Museum Informatics, a consulting firm in Toronto.

In 20 years, pushed aside by waves of cheaper technology, "those records will be very difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve," he said.

Digital files are also remarkably easy to destroy, by accident or design.

Just after the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, Air Force historian Eduard Mark was assigned to write a history of the campaign. When he found the right records, the officer in charge was seconds away from a single keystroke that would have purged every daily "situation report" prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, data crucial to understanding the conflict.

Soon after, Mark had an epiphany.

"I spend much of my life burrowing around in archives. Curiously enough, I had never noticed that the offices I worked in were not generating much archival material" or systematic records of any kind, he said.

Historically, the Pentagon created vast paper trails memorializing orders for paper clips, D-day battle plans and heated policy debates. In the 1980s, computers replaced typing pools and file clerks. Carbon copies were gradually replaced by perishable e-mails, cryptic PowerPoint slides and transient websites that can be deleted instantly.

It's more than a loss to history.

"If officials leave no paper trail," Mark said, "how can they be held responsible for their actions?"

At the same time, though, more information than ever is being created and stored.

UC Berkeley scientists estimated in 2003 the world's annual output of digital content stored on magnetic and optical media such as hard drives and compact discs, not counting films, TV shows or websites. Their upper estimate was equivalent to 500,000 times the print holdings of the Library of Congress.

Yet a few generations from now, this period may be the most obscure since the advent of the printing press, partly because of the structure of digital files.

As a book, "War and Peace" is a literal representation of Leo Tolstoy's words. Properly stored, it would be readable for hundreds of years. On a CD, "War and Peace" is an encoded string of 0s and 1s. Without the right descrambling hardware and software, the disk is best used as a coaster for a cold drink. More and more, documents are produced only in digital form.

"We are capable of producing perfect copies, which confer a kind of immortality on the things we create," said Rand Corp. archives expert Jeff Rothenberg. Yet those copies require software "to make them real."

What can be done when old devices and software are eclipsed? Electrical engineer Charles Mayn, 63, has spent his career answering that question.

He runs the preservation lab of the National Archives — a museum of archaic wire recorders, Dictaphones and wax cylinder players — where movies and audio files are transferred from obsolete to contemporary media.

Mayn's toughest challenge was 11,000 hours of audio recorded in Germany after World War II. It contained thousands of unique interviews of war-crime defendants and witnesses, such as assistants to the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, who conducted horrific experiments on death-camp inmates.

"Mengele was wanting to find out what happens to pilots if they fly too high, the air's too thin, they come down too fast," Mayn said, referring to one recorded interrogation. "So the technician helped with experiments on prisoners in pressure chambers."

The interviews, which contain crucial details otherwise lost to history, were recorded with a "Recordgraph," on 50-foot long, one-inch wide, nested plastic belts. The device cut grooves into the plastic much like those on an old vinyl record.

Not a single working Recordgraph machine could be found to play the interviews.

So Mayn built two from scratch.

Over a decade, the interviews were moved to quarter-inch audiotape. Kept cool and dry, tape can last 50 years. But soon after the job was finished in the mid-1990s, the last factory making quarter-inch tape closed its doors and players are no longer made.

Today, everything the Archives rerecords is going digital. The old media are dead.

Mayn said that like the Recordgraph and quarter-inch tape, he's among the last of his breed. No one could build a replacement DVD player from scratch, because there's no reasonable way to resurrect the software once it is lost.

"Someone a few centuries out who found a [Recordgraph belt], can kind of figure it out — put a needle on it and get sound back," he said. "If they find a CD, there's just nothing there."

The National Archives building in Washington is inscribed, "What is past is prologue" — a fitting aphorism for the agency that conserves the nation's heritage.

The agency is spending $308 million on an electronic system regarded as the first step to solve the digital archive problem. Yet a chief method the agency uses, translating information onto more contemporary media, is like a child's game of telephone. Every transfer loses shades of meaning.

The difficulty and cost of the process prompted WGBH, Boston's public broadcasting television station, to hedge its bets. It purchased 6-foot-tall, 1960s-era video recorders and shrink-wrapped them in cold storage to ensure a way to play back a unique collection of Boston Symphony concerts from 1955 and an interview series hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt, featuring such luminaries as then-Sen. John F. Kennedy.

Transferring data gets more difficult over time. New material emerges at an ever-greater rate. Technical descriptions that allow old documents or images to be viewed on new devices must be appended to each file. Such descriptions gain complexity with each migration and soon outgrow the original documents.

The limits to the Sisyphean migration strategy have stimulated several new approaches.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico operates a website that converts academic papers in physics and other fields into several digital formats, increasing the likelihood that the information will be readable as software standards evolve.

Scientists are also working on universal translators — software designed to operate on any computer and translate any software to the latest standard — and "emulators" to mimic old digital files for use on modern devices.

But those methods are also imperfect, another reason that the records of modern society could become like the artifacts of a primitive culture — fascinating, but mysterious and full of gaps.

Jason Lanier, a computer scientist who coined the term "virtual reality," describes what's at stake this way:

"If you let forgetting and remembering happen arbitrarily, you're losing part of yourself."

*

charles.piller@latimes.com



Copyright 2006 Los Angeles Times
FOR THE RECORD:
Digital memories: Wednesday's Column One article on the dangers of losing materials stored digitally misspelled the first name of Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist who coined the term "virtual reality," as Jason. —

9 comments:

w.t. said...

I often think. I'm so tardy getting my memoir stuff, that what's already in the computer, edited. And everything isn't in. I'm so busy living now, my past doesn't get a whole lot of my attention. I often think, my computer does such crazy things, what if it is all wiped out? Oh well, I think then, at least I have it all complete on paper. So called hard copies. Then I think, what if the house catches on fire, everything lost. Computer, hard copies and all. Well, I will be still there with my memory. Then I think, my memory gets shaky. Gets that way the older you get. Then I think, if I was in the fire, and poof, dead. No more memory. Gone.

Computer is strange. Tons of memory can be wiped out, in a flash. Gone. On the other hand, (Fiddler on the Roof.) when you delete precious information, like when you poured out your heart in an e-mail to a friend, just for those 'ears', it is never really gone. They, (perhaps the nazis, or Osama Ben Ladens, (and he is such a hunk, and so mean), can still retrieve that information and send you to death camp for it or so.

Not only computers wipe out memory. What about the time when they burned the libraries in Alexandria, out of spite for whatever, out of fear maybe of knowledge? How much information has never reached us?

Who knows, maybe someone or somones, already knew how the universe started, recorded it, and then poof, it was gone. And now they are sweating over it in the Perimiter Institute, on blackboards, chasing information that disappeared in the black hole, long ago.

Are we setting too much store to physical records?

Once when I read about the voices of women being lost and was thinking about that, I scribbled down,

"the silence and being silenced
the never heard of or never recorded voices of women throughout the ages, because of male domination
are they really lost or may it be that in our deep intuitions those voices speak within us always here to guide us?"

There is a kind of memory that is recorded in the genes. The more we depend on written, printed, inscribed language, the less we listen to inner records.

Animals have no written language. they remember what they need to remember to survive.

Bushmen could communicate hundreds of miles apart by clicking sounds they could make and felt within themselves.

I guess what I am trying to say is that yes, ofcourse we love the written language, and we feel very clever with our computers, whether we love or hate them, but do we really, really need all that information for true quality of life?

Personally, if nobody and no literature ever reminded me anymore of war and Hitlers and hunger and fear and never tried to explain strategies to me anymore...

I think I rather would like to be that oblivious...

War,(the first world war>) was supposed to end all wars. Are we learning from what we know? Are we not destroying anymore, are we not terrorizing anymore...?

The older we get the weaker our memory. Has forgetting a purpose in the universe?

Ah, what do I know, I don't know much. The more people have, the more they want, the more they create inbalance, the more power trips, the more greed, the more anger, the more terrorism...

Maybe we should only remember the days in September... a love song I'm sure, although I can sing the melody but don't remember the words.

Bet if I type the first line in the computer web search that the words come up? Isn't life strange?

shakin' said...

it is a nightmare which has taught me BACKUP and UPGRADE anything I think is worthy of keeping.

Each time a new storage medium is developed then backup. And the untimate backup is hard copy.

w.t. said...

Reading my last comment, I realize that the last sentence/question, is a song too. "Isn't Life strange..." by The Moody Blues.

And Shaking, thanks again for 'shaking up' my computer. I don't even know how to do all that back up stuff. My documents are prey for the black hole. Oh well.

w.t. said...

Ha, I did type in the song "Try to remember the days in September" and although it didn't give me the other words, I learned that it was the song where the longest running musical in the world,(Now in its 40th year) Los Fantastios, playing at the Sullivan Playhouse in New York, is best known for. Anyone knows all the words? Anyone seen that musical?

It says it points the finger at a flawed society, rather shakespeare style, seen through the eyes of a young lovers, and brings a message we could do with now in our time.

Larry Keiler said...

Try to Remember, from The Fantasticks

Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh so mellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain so yellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a young and a callow fellow
Try to remember and if you remember
Then follow ( follow ) follow ( follow ) follow . . .

Try to remember when life was so tender
That no one wept except the willow
Try to remember when life was so tender
That dreams were kept beside your pillow
Try to remember when life was so tender
That love was an ember about to billow
Try to remember and if you remember
Then follow ( follow ) follow ( follow ) follow . . .


Deep in December it's nice to remember
Although you know the snow will follow
Deep in December it's nice to remember
Without a hurt, the heart is hollow
Deep in December it's nice to remember
The fire of September that made you mellow
Deep in December our hearts should remember
Then follow ( follow ) follow ( follow ) follow . . .

shakin' said...

If you wish WT, I'll take you shopping. And we will get you a jump drive. For about 50 bucks you can get a device to backup all your files. It is the size of a key chain.

Computer drives, storage devices, and books extend my memory. I take it for granted. Until I lose it or it is destroyed.

Digital amnesia is a crushing feeling. No one can eliminate the risk of this amnesia but there are some ways of reducing that risk.

Now I am going to go back up my hard drive. If I can only REMEMBER where I put my jump drive down. Smiles….

w.t. said...

Sounds interesting, Shaking. You think I am smart enough to do that loading and alert enough to not lose the device hopelessly? Thanks for the offer.

And Larry, thanks for the words of Try to Remember..." When I read them I know that I have heard them, Just not remembered.

Xena said...

Part of me says "it's all dust in the wind" anyway... We all die. And what we have all eventually dies or disintegrates too. It's hard to learn to let go, which I suspect is the reason behind some of our huge stockpiling of information.

But how glorious, the time we have to live - and the act of creating that time allows us.

If we want to preserve what we create for a little longer - to show some fingerprint of our thoughts and experiences - of our life - that is good and fine and rather lovely.

Last week I threw out a garbage bag of old disks. And I still have a bunch to throw out. I didn't even bother to sort through them. For one, the final products exist in print form somewhere in my closet or out there in the greater world. And many also exist on that wonderful little USB storage drive that Shakin' is talking about. I just love those things. I have three of them- about the size of erasers. There is something beautiful and right and NON-WASTEFUL about them. They are much better for our landfill and forests.

And I keep thinking that "eternity is in a grain of sand" or "the Kingdom of God" is held within the mustard seed. I don't know, I have a thought circling in my brain that all existence is recorded in every little piece of matter - the blueprint - the encryption - the memory. Perhaps we are just doing the same thing with the miniaturization of our memory devices.

I did indeed lose a USB jump drive once - and it was awful - like drifting. I told my family I had lost my memory! They found that amusing - as if I suffered dementia. But then I found my memory again! All was restored!

Life is good! And the desire to record it is good too. But you know, we don't need it all. If some things are lost, so be it. If all things are lost, well - that's "the end of the world as we know it".... to quote another song...

w.t. said...

Oh Xena, I so agree with that. You express it just right. You made this comment yesterday. I almost didn't find it. My previous one did not make it to the post tail. Didn't think anyone would check anymore.
"Letting go." So easily said, often so hard to do.
But where it comes to my written material, I am pretty philosophical about the possibility of loosing it. Somehow I cannot really get worried about it. and I think that is because I feel like you, that somehow there is a record of what you did and do in the all over web of life.

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