On Preserving Digital Human History
On a hike in the deep woods of Nova Scotia, crossing a river, they saw a strange pattern of rocks, almost in “V” shapes and obviously built by human hands. What they’d discovered was a very complex system for catching fish and nurturing them built by the Mi’kmaw many hundreds of years ago. A system far better than what “modern” humans have built today. This type of discovery happens regularly around the world. From finding an arrowhead, burial sites and mounds, swords, chariots, scrolls and stone tablets. They are the desiderata of past civilizations, often buried and uncovered by winds and rains and thaws. But they are there. We uncover them through archeologists and paleoanthropologists. Bits and pieces that we slowly put together. As we understand our past, so can we seek to understand where we are going.
But what happens when this is turned into zero’s and ones? To those houses and places built years ago in SecondLife, or the suit of armour purchased for a video game that is no longer around as the company that ran it shutdown. Or all the designs and artefacts created for clans in World of Warcraft or the cities built in SimCity? The characters we created for various role playing games. What about that piece of NFT art you bought for a good deal a few weeks ago? What if you stored it on a cloud services app like iCloud or OneCloud and a few years later, you go to get it to put it up for auction because that’s the cool thing to do with an NFT in 2035, but it isn’t there. The underlying blockchain contract is in tact, but the art is gone. When the cloud storage provider upgraded to a new storage system, the art itself was lost.
You’d signed the Terms & Conditions, but like everyone, hadn’t read them. There was a clear clause in there that should the provider switch to a new storage system, it was not liable for content that was lost or degraded.
The digital culture side of our lives is fluid, constantly shifting with new technologies and ideas. Even Web3 is merely a bunch of circulating ideas right now. The metaverse a concept, but not much more. Digital technologies are constantly evolving and in the exponential age, they’re evolving ever faster. How we store zeros and ones is too.
A stone tablet several thousand years old, even a book, actually has a longer lifecycle than modern hard drives and any digital storage system. Just recently I found an old Zip drive from 2001. I managed to finagle an old connector to plug it into my MacBook Pro to see what was on there. No luck. To get whatever was on there could be done, but it would cost and take time. Then there was the guy who lost his hard drive in a garbage pile with nearly $500MM in crypto on it. Gone.
New types of storage systems are being worked on. From using DNA strands to quantum computing systems for storage. But still, a vinyl record will last longer than a CD or DVD. When we transition to new digital storage systems, we cannot be sure that the original content will survive fully and intact.
In a few thousand or even a hundred years, when so much of human history and knowledge is digital, how will a “digital archeologist” discover past history that may inform our current time then or future? Does it matter?
What about family photos and albums? When we print them off into analog and stick them in an album, they last a very long time. And there is little cost, other than shelf space, to storing them. In a digital world, we are increasingly paying for more storage online. What happens when we die? There’s a business model in there. Perhaps.
New and better storage systems will evolve. Should there be some human right to ensure we can always have access to our personal data? Family data such as movies and images and written content like memoirs that we may pass on to family but not want to be in the public domain? Or maybe have the option to send them to a museum or university to aid in future research? How can we be sure of the perpetuity of an NFT art piece we buy today? We can restore ancient art works, keep them in special climate controlled storage. Right now, those paintings have a greater chance of surviving than does our digital content. The upside is that anything digital can be replicated, but rules, regulations and laws are not in place for preserving our digital human history. Should they be?