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As we continue to create more and more data; it is somehow ironic and fitting, that the technology that we use to store that data is becoming less and less robust. It does seem to be the way that as civilisation progresses the more that we have to say, the less chance that in a millennia’s time that it will still be around to be enjoyed and discovered.

The oldest European cave paintings date to 32,0000 years ago with the more well known and sophisticated paintings from Lascaux being estimated to being 17,300 years old; there are various schools of thought as to what they mean but we can still enjoy them as artwork and get some kind of message from them. Yes, many have deteriorated and many could continue to deteriorate unless access is controlled to them but they still exist.

The first writing emerges some 5000+ years in the form of cuneiform; we know this because we have discovered clay and stone tablets; hieroglyphs arrived possibly a little later than this with papyrus appearing around the same time followed by parchment. Both papyrus and parchment are much more fragile than stone and clay; yet we have examples going back into the millennia B.C.E.

Then came along paper; first made from pulped rags and then from pulped wood; mass produced in paper mills, this and printing allowed the first mass explosion in information storage and dissemination but yet paper is generally a lot less stable than both parchment, papyrus and certainly stone and clay tablets.

Still paper is incredibly versatile and indeed was the storage medium for the earliest computers in the form of punch cards and paper-tape. And it is at this point that life becomes interesting; the representation of information on the storage medium is no longer human readable and needs a machine to decode it.

So we have moved to an information storage medium which is both less permanent than it’s predecessors, needs a tool to read it and decode it.

And still progress continues, to magnetic media and optical media. Who can forget the earliest demonstrations of CDs on programmes such as Tomorrow’s World in the UK which implied that these were somehow indestructible and everlasting? And the subsequent disclosures that they are neither.

Will any of the media developed today have anything like the longevity of the mediums from our history? And will any of them be understandable and usable in a millennia’s time? It seems that the half-life of media both as a useful and usable is ever decreasing. So perhaps the industry needs to think about more than the sheer amount of data that we can store and more about how we preserve the records of the future.

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