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How long will the future last?
This article all started with Damien Hirst and the decaying shark.
My son was doing a project for his design degree, and we were discussing if Art should last for ever.
I pointed out that work by artists like Peter Blake and even Tracey Emin used everyday materials and no-one knew how long they would last. He pointed out that much medieval art has been restored and we can’t be certain what it originally looked like.
In my personal information world, our past family Xmas newsletters can only be read because I have kept ‘Ami Pro’ software. Many might argue the world would be better off without these, though.
Images I recovered from ten year old floppies recently had more lines than the ‘before’ in a L’Oreal advert. My audio tape recordings of the BBC Radio ‘Lord of the Rings’ from the 1980s will have to be replaced by a CD as Gollum now sounds like one of the Chipmunks.
In my industrial career my company developed a plastic to replace glass in greenhouses. The plastic was tested in an ‘accelerated ageing’ machine which blasted it with enough ultra violet radiation to power an East End tanning salon for millennia. The plastic came out unharmed. But when it was tested in real life, there was this complex ageing mechanism involving water and flexing which no-one could have predicted.
But, of course, this decay won’t happen to digital media, will it? We won’t need the generation Y equivalent of Lovejoy to spot the fakes from the genuine images, supported by a gallery of lovable techno rogues played by Dudley Sutton?
Isaac Asimov wrote about an expedition to find the long lost home of humanity in which key information about the Earth was stored in an interstellar library but not accessible. The history section wasn’t closed on Sundays – technology had moved on and the past had become unreadable.
Records managers have written about the problem that in the past, it took a positive decision to throw records away: they were on paper, which tends to last a long time*
But now records can easily be thrown away by an arbitrary decision – perhaps in the future one on how to minimise cloud storage costs. A senior records manager recounted to me recently being asked whether a particular database could be deleted on the grounds that no-one had looked at it for a while. He responded quite reasonably that probably 1% of the information was really important to keep, but he couldn’t answer what information without spending some time and resource on the issue.
And there’s the contradiction. We need to think more about the long term fate of information upfront, but the user driven information environment we live in screams that this is a waste of time and we need to focus on the now.
Perhaps cloud is the answer. Perhaps the eternally decreasing costs of storage mean that everything will get kept for ever, and migration of all information from the past to the formats of the future will be part of every service level agreement with a cloud provider. But whilst costs and contracts run annually, it will be something the information owner will need to think about and take responsibility for.
For CIOs, this means a clear contract with the business.
Perhaps Dick Clement and Ian la Frenais need to rewrite the lyrics to the fondly remembered ‘whatever happened to the likely lads’..
Tomorrow’s almost over, today went by so fast
The only thing that’s left to us now: the past
…If you can still find the data
* or did before the high acid paper of recent decades. My 30 year old copies of ‘Private Eye’ are in better condition than my 15 year old ones