Friday, July 18, 2008

Archiving for 3008

The map before me was unlike any other—it detailed the locations of various sunken ships around the island of Bermuda. All sizes and ages of ship were there: modern ships along with old cuttys and Man O' Wars. It was a divers' map, but also a testament to how the oceans function as a de facto archive for sea vessels. Were it not for those horrific marine catastrophes, these vessels—including precious insights into each ship's respective civilization—would have remained a black hole in our memory.

The Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks, the Macedonians, the Mayans... how much of all of these civilizations still endure to modern scholars? How much has been lost to the unrelenting storms of time? How much been saved?

Hans told me once of a devastating storm in Nepal. The building preserving Nepal's historic documents was breached and priceless national treasures were strewn about like forgotten plastic grocery bags. Some poor government official was left running around snatching up whatever documents he could find, surely in denial that his country's priceless records were irreparably damaged.

"Can you imagine that?" Hans asked me. "Picking up a piece of paper like that off the ground... and the ground must have been wet from the rain. For that Nepalese government official, it would have been like us trying to rescue our Declaration of Independence."

I heard a story once of this group of U.S. filmmakers filming in Russia with a part-Russian crew. At the first meeting, the director stood up and said, "We should all feel honored to be a part of this production. In this very location, Sergei Eistenstein filmed Battleship Potempkin—", and then one of the Russian crew members muttered, "And probably with the same equipment."


The Economist had an article once about a videotape which had been discovered in 1992 containing footage of Senator George McGovern during his campaign against Richard Nixon in 1972. McGovern lost to Nixon's landslide vote, so the footage had a unique historical value.

But they couldn't play the tape.

The video was in a format no longer playable by existing video players. There were only two functional video players still able to play the tape, and the plan was to transfer that videotape to some other format for long-term archiving. The machines were very fragile, reserved for only the highest priority projects. One of the machines was owned, quite rightly, by the Library of Congress, and they rejected a request to use the Library's machine. The other machine—wait for it—was owned by the Nixon Preservation Society. (The name of the group is different, but the gist is the same.) Naturally, they said no, as well.

This videotape found in 1992, only 30 years after it had been created, was effectively garbage. Maybe one day someone will have created a new technology to read the data on the tape, but maybe not.

Even film on celluloid, while it has more longevity over videotape (i.e., you can still shoot film on a 50 year old film camera, and play 50 year old film on a 50 year old film projector), decays over time, as the restored prints for Star Wars: A New Hope have illustrated. For instance, the Sistine Chapel has collected so much residue that the original image is barely even visible. If paintings don't even last well over time, what long-term hope is there for digital entertainment? Stone tablets are the only proven vestiges to last thousands of years, so all audiovisual content—TV, movies, documentaries, news... in short, everything we've come to know as defining the modern age—seems fated to perish.

And even the value of preserving our audiovisual history can be seen as a luxury when compared to our very survival. How would we cope if something like Waterworld happened where the entire earth is flooded and all structures built below 44 meters (a skyscraper's 17 stories) would be underwater? All the earth's archives would be in jeopardy. Technological advancement would grind to a halt and, eventually, recede. So how would we pass the earth's knowledge to descendants 500–5,000 years into this aquatic future? All DVDs and CDs would be useless: in a moist future, CD and DVD players' moving parts would stop working after half a century, if not sooner. All film projectors would stop working after two centuries. Stone tablets would sink to the bottom of the ocean. All paper dropped in the water would eventually disintegrate.

Yeah, I'm afraid the future is plastics... buoyant plastics. I'm no expert, but it seems to me that a floating, durable plastic or composite is about the only thing which would last 500 to 5,000 years. Thus, if you really wanted to offset another dark age by preserving the world's essential knowledge for future generations (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.), then you should:
  1. Compile as much knowledge as you can into one book printed on buoyant plastic. (Or make the pages from etched stone tablets, and securely attach them to a floatable plastic.)
  2. Assume the book will wear down over time—print the type deeply into the page.
  3. Assume most languages will degrade—include a language primer with intuitive icons on every page.
  4. Assume many of these books will perish—print a million of them and position them around the world.
  5. Assume some pages will decay or be lost over time—make the information redundant across many pages.

And movies? In the harshest of long-term futures, barring some technological advance where media players upgrade despite the fall of civilizations, we should assume no digital content will last more than 200–300 years. Even so, the Ancient Mayans told stories with graphic pictures and their carved stone panels still exist today... so we could simply "paint" pictures in our floating plastic books with a Wall Street Journal-type pointillism. No media player needed to see that.

And besides, graphic novels never really get old, do they?


Dave Roy said...

Ahh, another quest for the philosopher's stone, the fountain of youth, life everlasting. It's in our human blood to refuse to accept that our mark on the universe is transient.

But if we are picking methods to preserve our literary works I favor Bradbury's solution from Farenheit 451. Get started memorizing The Lord of the Rings, that'll be a good one to recite on our damp hilltop while we watch the tides encroach...

Ross Pruden said...

While this world will indeed be consumed by our sun's supernova one day, I would hope our species is able to successfully pass on our knowledge throughout the ages, if not for the sake of posterity, then at least for the sake of our survival.

Nobody can realistically hope for immortality, but what purpose would we serve if our children did not take our place armed with the lessons we learned through our own toil?