Technology September 2006

File Not Found

Why a stone tablet is still better than a hard drive
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"From the Tech Toolbox" (September 2006)
Some products and links worth knowing about. By James Fallows

Here’s something new to worry about! What if all the material you have accumulated on your computer—financial records, e-mails, photos of the family, elaborate graphs—is destined to disappear in a few years? What would that mean, not simply for retaining useful work-and-business archives but also for capturing and perhaps later savoring the baby pictures, notes from friends, diary entries, and other tokens of passage through life?

The main concern here is not that your files might vanish all at once, in a catastrophic hard-disk failure. Like airline crashes, such events occur but are rare. I have suffered exactly one irretrievable hard-disk failure over the last quarter century. That was in 1994, when I dropped a laptop while on a long overseas trip. I’ve been more careful about making backups (and carrying computers) since then.

The deeper problem involves a paradox of the digital age. It is easier than ever to generate and store vast quantities of data, but harder to be sure that the information you want will be available later on. A single frame taken by my current digital camera occupies seven megabytes of disk storage—more than was on the entire hard drive of my first IBM PC. An hour’s worth of a TV broadcast or a movie can take more than one gigabyte, or more than 1,000 megabytes. As big as our hard drives get, we find ways to fill them. James Billington, the head of the Library of Congress, told me about a report estimating that digital information equivalent in scale to the contents of all the library’s books is produced by the world’s computers every fifteen minutes.

The convenience is obvious: the PDF file rather than the stack of papers on the desk; the instantly viewable photo rather than the wait for prints from the camera shop; the quick keyword search rather than the need to flip through pages to find the desired passage. But this marvelously handy information is strangely transient—especially the information each of us might want to store for our own purposes, as opposed to the Big Brother–style central registries of our phone calls, credit-card transactions, and similar activities.

“The best-preserved data tends to be on stone steles and cuneiform tablets,” Billington told me when I went to the library to hear about its recent attempts to solve the “digital preservation” problem. “Papyrus, vellum, parchment—all those classical modes hold up pretty well.” Chris Weston, of the library’s Office of Strategic Initiatives, recounted what he called a typical story of old-style data preservation. “Someone in upstate New York was cleaning out the attic of an old farmhouse—and there was a letter from Benedict Arnold. It had been in a cool, dry place for 200-some years. With most things on paper, unless you throw them away or actively destroy them, they’re likely to stay around.”

It’s just the reverse, of course, with digital data. Unless you go out of your way to renew and preserve it, information on a computer will disappear fairly quickly. More precisely, it will become unusable. Several related processes are involved. One is what Clay Shirky, a media scholar at New York University, has mock-portentously called “Playback Drift: The Silent Killer.” This boils down to the idea that the physical devices for storing and then retrieving digital data succeed one another so quickly that information is in constant jeopardy of being trapped in an obsolete format.

The first files I produced on a computer, in the 1970s, were stored on Radio Shack audiotape cassettes. After that, I used a computer with eight-inch floppy disks. The book I wrote twenty-five years ago using that computer still looks fine—but the interview notes for it, which I “saved” on those big old disks, I might just as well have burned. For all practical purposes, there is no way for me to get at them anymore—nor at other information that over the years I’ve lodged on 5.25-inch disks, small archival high-density tapes, some varieties of Zip drives, and other media that my current computers can’t handle. As each new and improved storage system comes out, computers generally remain compatible with the immediate past system but not with anything older. A few years ago, virtually any new PC had a built-in 3.5-inch disk drive. Now such drives are often missing or optional, as CD-ROMs and DVDs have become standard. Eventually the small disks will be obsolete and information on them will be orphaned. Any file stored more than six or eight years ago, and not transferred to something more modern in the meantime, is on its way to doom.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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