Will Digital Era Mean End of History?

Every October, a centuries-old Buddhist sect in Kyoto, Japan, prays for our culture — hoping in a special "information service" that today's history and records will be open to future generations, and not fade away like the ghosts of so many failed dot-coms.

"Not too long ago before the computer was invented, people recorded important matters by committing them to paper," reads the Web site of the Daioh Temple of Rinzai Zen Buddhism. "As we enter the 21st century, however, most of the knowledge gained presently is through the use of electronic-aided devices, whether they be televisions, radios or PCs."

The transformation presents issues not only on a spiritual level, but also on a cultural one for archivists and historians, who worry that historically important information will be lost to digital deterioration, changing computer formats, carelessness or willful destruction.

"If the last century was built on the exploitation of oil … this next century is all about intellectual property and knowledge, and right now we are mishandling the most important resource the world has," says Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit group trying to preserve a record of the Internet by periodically scanning and storing as much as possible.

Although there is considerable disagreement over the extent to which the historical record is in jeopardy — with many feeling it is quite secure — archivists and preservation officials agree there has been a change in the way we are recording history. And, they say, old ways of preserving that record need to be rethought.

Information on paper could be stored in a static archive and checked occasionally for signs of decay, but digital information requires frequent conversion from old storage media, like computer disks and magnetic tapes, to newer ones.

"If these materials are not actively maintained, we will lose them," Kahle says. "If we drop the ball for 10 or 15 years, which is a heartbeat in the digital field, we may never be able to recover the information again in a cost-effective way."

Archivists note it is common for early examples of developing mediums, such as film, television and publishing, not to survive, but they are eager to preserve a more representative record this time.

Questions About Data Storage

In the early days of computers, some users assumed data would be safe for decades. But though documented examples of historically significant digital data loss are rare, archivists claim some early government tapes, or the records on them, already have deteriorated, sometimes making them unreadable.

There are implications for home computer users, too. Although no independent aging test results are commonly available for CDs, archivists claim common media in use now — such as CDs and floppy disks — have proven unreliable and uneven in quality. They say that while some hold up, others can suddenly become unreadable after just a matter of years, rather than decades or centuries, which manufacturers often claim their own laboratory testing shows.

Katherine Cochrane, president of the CD-Info Co. Inc., a consultant company and publisher of CD technology, says home users without sophisticated testing equipment might not know in time if their disks are damaged, because error-correction functions of devices such as home music CD players may mask data errors until it is too late.

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