Internet Make Big Magic!

Arthur C. Clarke famously said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  Some things I’ve been reading lately reminded me of how we ourselves, for all our supposed high-tech sophistication, have a habit of viewing it magically.  With this in mind, I’m posting an essay I wrote for another website about six years ago, with minor edits made to reflect the passage of time.

About five or six years ago, when I was teaching high school science, I attended a two-day conference on the uses of technology in education.  As with most conferences, there were parts that were interesting, parts that were boring, things that were useful, and things that were crap.  That’s the way most things are, isn’t it?  Anyway, the second session on the first day dealt with the use of podcasts in education, and it was in this session that something interesting transpired.  

The presentation had gone well for over half of the allotted time, and (despite the fact that I am in general skeptical about claims that technology will improve education) I found some of the ideas of potential use.  There was one issue that bothered me, though.  One of the issues of the high-tech age that has not been adequately discussed, in my mind, at least, is the longevity of CD’s.  Those of us who grew up with scratched records or tangled cassette tapes thought that CD’s were the perfect medium–nothing physically contacted it (only laser light), and even scratches weren’t as deleterious as they were for vinyls, so as long as you kept a CD from bending or breaking and wiped off fingerprints at times.  If you did all that (so we thought) they should last forever!  Well, as we have learned since then, depending on how optimistic you are and the assumptions you make, CD’s last 75 years or, more pessimistically, two years (I’m more inclined toward an average of about 10 years, with luck).

The point was this: Podcasts may well be useful in education, but they do tend to take up megabytes of computer space. Thus, where do you store them? In this context, they would ultimately be posted to a website, but where to store them in the meantime, and how to store backups? CD’s, as we’ve seen, are not as “immortal” as we’d thought. You could drop them on your hard drive, but they build up fast—as an avowed podcast freak (I keep up with many spoken-word podcasts via iTunes), after my C drive came perilously close to being totally full, I’ve had to buy a terabyte external hard drive, of which I’ve filled about 180 gigabytes thus far.  Not only that, as techies know, hard drives eventually wear out, too (for business computers, in as little as two years). Presumably, one might want to keep particularly effective podcasts for years or even decades. So where do you store them in order to ensure their continued existence (longevity) and without filling all one’s available storage space?

I asked the presenter these questions, and she admitted that the question was indeed a legitimate one with no easy answers. As her answer trailed off, one of the other conference attendees, an enthusiastic young guy in his twenties, helpfully spoke up: “Hey, you just make it digital!”

Now, keep in mind, everything computers do is digital! The young guy’s phraseology was certainly less than felicitous! I actually had a pretty good idea as to what he meant, but I decided to go Socratic and play dumb:

Me: Good point, but I’m a little confused.  What do you mean by “digital”?

Enthusiastic guy: You just put it online!

Me: Oh…I see! (After a moment of thought) But isn’t there still a problem?

Enthusiastic Guy (Puzzled now): What?

Me: Well, everything on the Internet is ultimately stored on some physical computer or server somewhere, right?

Enthusiastic guy: Right….

Me: Which means it’s still on some hard drive somewhere, which means it’s still subject to hard-drive failure, lightning strikes, read errors, filling up the disk, or just plain wearing out, right? After all, for all their defects, books can last for centuries or millennia, whereas we’re not even sure that digital data will last two decades!

Enthusiastic guy (Perplexed): Oh…right…..

Me: So if you want something to last ten or twenty or thirty years, that’s still a major problem then, isn’t it?

Enthusiastic guy: Well, yeah…. (More hopefully) But most computers now have lots of storage…. (Brightening up) And anyway, old software is really a bigger problem than storage!

Changing the subject doesn’t make the problem go away! Also, as one who’s been using PC’s for over 30 years, I think the software problem is major. How much stuff is out there, say, in WordStar (anybody remember that?) that is now totally useless without an emulation or really old software that hasn’t been thrown out? Even if the data is preserved, it might be unreadable in the future!

In any case, this seemed to me to be a typical example of the seemingly unlimited faith that people put in technology. It is also an example of the apparently complete obliviousness we have to the issue of infrastructure. Never mind that somebody somewhere has to be hosting the data, never mind that said data is hosted on a physical machine that can, in fact ultimately will fail or wear out; it’s digital, so it must last forever!  Our past has survived for millennia so far on clay tablets, papyri, paper, and such.  I hope it makes it past the end of this century.

Posted on 21/07/2012, in computers and Internet, social commentary, technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

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