In the 21st century, we are used to storing our information in the cloud, which has clear benefits over paper databases and books. Still, is digital storage the best place to keep human knowledge for the long term?
There was a time when people believed CDs were the best medium for long-term storage. Some manufacturers promised a lifetime of a hundred years. Then, researchers discovered that particles such as dust could oxidize on the CD's surface. As one might guess, this leads to the loss of the data. A researcher participating in The End of Memory documentary, Jacques Perdereau, suggested that 85% of CD's can last over 20 years. But, the remaining 15% have lifespans of 1 to 5 years. So much for the long-term storage.
Will the cloud be any different?
The cloud is a bunch of data centers distributed around the world, but at the end of the day, it's just computers and hard drives talking to your personal devices via the internet.
Let’s look at the hard drives more closely.
A hard drive is a set of circular plates with high-speed rotation, which creates airflow. This airflow is vital for the proper functioning of a magnetic read head. The magnetic read head needs to be able to move constantly, and so dust, impurities or a mechanical shock can lead to damage. Manufacturers usually guarantee 5 years of use.
You might be a bit worried about your holiday photos or important documents now. However, you can relax because the cloud gets around the hard drive's challenges by duplicating data. It keeps enough copies, so even if one hard drive is broken, the same information is safe on the other hard drives.
The question is how much information it can store and with what environmental impact? This is a complex topic on its own, so we will assume that with continuous improvements in computational efficiency and sustainable energy production, this is not an issue.
Still, it's too soon to call it for the servers. They need to be maintained by people, and that's a disadvantage when it comes to long term information storage.
This relates to the challenge of rapid changes in the digital media space. Some people will remember floppy disks. Finding a device with a floppy disk drive takes quite an effort because we moved on, and such devices are not manufactured anymore.
Paper is a trusted medium for long term information storage and archiving. We know for sure that books can last over a thousand years, and they could survive even longer in a controlled and stable environment.
The current digital storage does not compare
to paper when it comes to long term storage.
Books don’t need electricity, but they need space. A lot of space. For example, a massive library with 6 million books is equivalent to 1 TB of digital storage. Not to mention the challenges related to analysing the information hidden within the paper pages on the shelves.
On the other hand, is effective search a requirement for the storage of all human knowledge?
Human knowledge can mean anything. I would define it as something the future generations should know about our understanding of the world so far and about us, humans of this era. A collection of the most important scientific discoveries, the best pieces of art and literature and the biggest mistakes we ever made. Additionally, the future historians would be interested in microhistories of regular people.
The question of what knowledge humans should preserve is interesting too, but let's focus on the storage and two general types of information. There is a dynamic type of knowledge generated by internet use. Then there are facts, the results of scientific consensus. Are the requirements different?
We want to store all of the information for the long term, so 50, 100 or even 300 years. Another consideration is Dynamic data should be captured in snapshots. Imagine you have a blog, you post an article and someone comments on it. After two hours, someone else expands the discussion and the next day, the conversation continues and so on. All of this is valuable, and so archiving versions of an information source in time is crucial. In comparison, consensus on anything requires long periods to occur and is less likely to change.
It seems like paper and books are suitable for human knowledge, such as facts and scientific findings. The search is not ideal, but people used libraries instead of search engines, and they were just fine.
What about humans on the internet and their knowledge?
We need an alternative to paper and the digital storage we have now. Not only to capture our activities on the internet as this is not the most pressing issue. For instance, think about radioactive waste and the documentation for where it is and for how long. Such documents need to last for hundreds of years.
Researchers are aware of this, and they came up with some exciting innovations in the last decade. For example, the Hitachi Lab developed a quartz based digital medium that can store data for thousands of years. Microsoft’s Project Silica is looking into quartz glass too.
Another example is DNA.
Yes, you read that correctly. Scientists are working on DNA storage. They have already developed an algorithm that translates from 0 and 1 to the language of genetics - A, C, T, G. We already know that DNA is excellent long-term storage that can preserve a high quality of data for hundreds of thousands of years.
Both of these innovations have the potential to change the way we store all kinds of human knowledge.
So, where should humanity store its knowledge for the long term? Well, the cloud is the best option for our dynamic day-to-day data. With continuous innovations in digital storage media, the technology behind the cloud will probably develop too, and we as users won't even notice. Paper as information storage will likely become less and less relevant.
I recommend you to watch The End of Memory documentary if you would like to know more.
If you are wondering about your personal storage needs, you might like The Best Options to Store Data and Keep it Safe Forever.