How do we reliably store information for centuries when our compression algorithms are outmoded in less than a decade?
I moved last year. You’ve heard the phrase "I have tons of stuff"? Well, I'm embarrassed to say that we actually did, although I don't blame myself for that—I blame the data storage industry. You see, our tons of stuff didn't consist of things like clothing and shoes and expensive baubles. Outside of basic furniture and a collection of white porcelain plates in various sizes and shapes that only a cooking-obsessed person would truly understand, 90% of it was information. My husband and I are both big readers and both heavily into music. Now, the number of boxes filled up by music is not just a function of decades of evolving musical taste. Depending on when you grew up, being into music means having a stack of 45s, then a stack of record albums, then cassettes, then CDs, then a ginormous external hard drive. In the case of some artists, I have a release on vinyl, and cassette, and CD (and no, it's not the “Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack by the Bee Gees.)
Dali titled his painting "the Persistence of Memory," the irony of course being that memory, whether human or inorganic, is anything but persistent. It's the challenge that keeps archivists up at night – not just whether the specific content being stored will be compromised but whether the means for readout of a specific format will continue to be available at all (raise your hand if you have an eight track tape or a 5 inch floppy disk).
In some ways, technology is our enemy – the more sophisticated technology, the more rapidly it seems to be outmoded. Nonportable though stone may be, ancient civilizations might have had the right idea carving letters into stele. That said, as hieroglyphs showed us prior to the discovery of the Rosetta capstone, even a robust medium fails to be a viable storage solution if it's written in a format no longer accessible.
Long-term storage concerns go far beyond preserving images, music, financial records, and so on. In the case of the French nuclear waste management agency ANDRA, the challenge is how to maintain records of nuclear waste dumps so that future generations—human and nonhuman—will not accidentally open up a massive storage depot and expose themselves to fatal levels of radiation.
The ANDRA solution consists of a pair of 20-centimeter-diameter sapphire discs etched with the data in platinum—up to 40,000 pages per disc—then molecularly fused together. The discs would be read by optical microscope as a sort of high-tech microfiche (speaking of nearly outmoded storage technologies…)
What's your idea for a robust, long-term storage solution that can persist even in the face of technical advances?