Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Burn, Baby, Burn

Here's a stupid story by Jim Barksdale and Francine Berman who are two people who can't seem to see the trees for the trees; or never got the math right; or whatever strained metaphor you want to apply that concludes that they are dumb.

[Note: Jim and Francine seem to be bright people, and I only mock them for funny; don't take personal offense, kids.]

They complain that the digital equivalent of the informational contents of the Library of Alexandria gets lost every day/month/year. (Yet, they seem to be unsure of how to feel about
the loss, since some stuff is better lost).

The importance of developing sensible plans to preserve our digital heritage cannot be minimized. We can't save it all, nor do we want to, so it's critical that we agree on what data to save and how to save it. In the next 100 years, we will go through dozens of generations of computers and storage media, and our digital data will need to be transferred from one generation to the next, and by someone we trust to do it.

They seem to want important digital information saved, but they can't seem to decide what
the important stuff is or how to save it or even if they can trust anyone to press the Save button.
But they agree that it's important.

If something is really important, you do it. You don't wish for someone to form a committee.

For a while, I saved some of this stuff. I have an old Atari St computer and boxes of floppies for it. I have a bag of DOS OS disks. I have a Windows 95 computer in the garage with Win95 & 98 OS floppies and CDs stored away. But I really don't care about preserving this stuff. It's more trouble than it's worth. Yes, I wish I had an old 5 1/4 drive to read all the stuff I wrote back in 1992 on those crappy IBMs at FSU, but if it was really important to me, I would have printed those files out on paper. Did you read that? I said paper!

Dummies Jim and Francine continue:

By contrast, the Library of Congress has in its care millions of printed works, some on stone or animal skin that have survived for centuries.

Didn't they read what they wrote??? "Printed works." Why are we wasting all this money and time on preserving data in a medium that is designed to degrade and fragment and disappear? Microfilm lasts for what? hundreds of years? And paper can last for hundreds. So why don't we continue to use those?

Even with this blog; if I think I write something really cool, I will print it out. Which I haven't done, yet. But if I ever write something worth saving, I will...But dear reader, feel free to print it all to your heart's content.

Yes, paper takes space and needs to be stored properly, but so do all the computers that need to be saved to access all this old data in all the variety of formats that each new idiot decides is the optimal preservation medium.

And because of all this indecision, I have no faith that we will ever save anything.

When a future Ken Burns does his PBS special on life in the early 21st Century, he won't have any source material other than some text message retrieved from a twelve-year old's battered cell phone:
()/\/\‡6 ¿00 Þ\/\//\/I) /\/()()3 I()I

And we will be glad we have that (the message is: "omfg u pwnd n00b lol," for the less l33t of us, or "you nerd"for my mom).

During the Civil War, their twelve-year old boys wrote with pen and ink:

It is with an infinite sadness that the news of your recent illness has reached my ears. Yet President Lincoln's latest speech has strengthened our resolve to weather this latest unpleasantness of battle with confidence and stout brotherhood. The cherry blossoms are in bloom and I have been inspired to knit a colorful eye patch for my recent wound.

We have these letters (even fake ones that I just made up) because people wrote stuff down on paper. If something is meant to be preserved, then preserve it. On something stable, tangible, readable.

Publishers print books; librarians buy books; libraries store books. If people use the books, the librarians won't throw them away.

This is how we decide what data are important. As obsolete as you want to try to convince me it is, paper, and the books made from it, is still more useful than a yottabyte of formless digital crap. And until these bright minds can agree on how to preserve this crap, libraries will continue to do what they always do, collect and preserve.

Maybe you should ask a librarian.