Ensuring the Longevity
of Digital Documents; January 1995; Scientific American Magazine; by Rothenberg; 6 Page(s)
The year is 2045, and my grandchildren (as yet unborn) are exploring the attic of my house (as yet unbought). They find a letter dated 1995 and a CD-ROM. The letter says the disk contains a document that provides the key to obtaining my fortune (as yet unearned). My grandchildren are understandably excited, but they have never before seen a CD--except in old movies. Even if they can find a suitable disk drive, how will they run the software necessary to interpret what is on the disk? How can they read my obsolete digital document?
This imaginary scenario reveals some fundamental problems with digital documents. Without the explanatory letter, my grandchildren would have no reason to think the disk in my attic was worth deciphering. The letter possesses the enviable quality of being readable with no machinery, tools or special knowledge beyond that of English. Because digital information can be copied and recopied perfectly, it is often extolled for its supposed longevity. The truth, however, is that because of changing hardware and software, only the letter will be immediately intelligible 50 years from now.