Rhodri Marsden: Digital archiving is making us complacent

Cyberclinic
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The Independent Tech

Thanks to digital media, we've never had so much of our creativity immortalised. Future generations showing a vague interest in our feats and fallibilities will have an almost infinite number of things to study. Musicians churn out CDs and MP3s by the bucketload; photographers upload their snaps to Flickr in their billions; comedians and actors generate umpteen box sets-worth of video material we'll never get around to watching in our own lifetime; detailed news coverage stacks up on websites; we blog until we pass out and tweet as instinctively as we produce insulin.

But the Library Of Congress has produced a report this week arguing that we're not taking enough care of our data, and as a result the US "national legacy" (and indeed the legacy of all countries) might not be preserved for our children's children's children. The ease of capturing things digitally has, according to the report, made us complacent, referring to audio recordings in particular: "Older records have better prospects to survive another 150 years than recordings made last week using digital technologies," it reads. Why is this? The first issue is one of degradation; as technology advances, archives have to be constantly maintained and transferred to new media. Data stored on recordable CDs fades from the surface of the disk just as thermal print does from fax paper; floppy disks are obsolete, hard disk interfaces change, and laserdiscs – notably used to archive the huge data-gathering effort that was the BBC Domesday Project in the mid-1980s – look as archaic as parchment. Even material pertaining to recent events such as 9/11 is biting the dust, according to the report.

The other problem – particularly bad in the US but applicable to the rest of the world, too – is copyright law. The report states that a US recording made in 1909 has the same legal restrictions regarding copying and archiving as a CD recorded in 2009, and this makes the work of those tasked with preserving culture incredibly difficult; despite the fact that only 14 per cent of recordings made in the US between 1890 and 1964 are made available by the rights holders, libraries are restricted by law as to how they can copy the remaining 86 per cent for archival purposes. Our laws are more generous, but as libraries continue to move into a digital era there will be restrictions on how they can make their archived material available to the public. It seems absurd not to make it accessible via the internet, but by doing so a library becomes no different to your average file sharer because once someone has "borrowed" something, they can just copy it and pass it on.

The law, once again, moves too slowly; for example, it's still illegal for the British Library to archive a website without explicit permission from its creator, while in the US the Motion Picture Association of America has suggested that the best way for educational institutions to circumvent DVD copying regulations is to buy a camcorder and film said DVD being shown on a television. There's progress. While data rot is undoubtedly an issue, some have suggested this week that archaeologists of the future may even find the current era to be a mystery, which is faintly ridiculous. Sure, innumerable individual pieces of digital data – songs, documents, photographs – are accidentally perishing every day. But even if 99 per cent of all our data disappeared, there'd still be more than enough for historians to get a flavour of our age. And they'd probably conclude we were obsessive about recording things, but not so hot at preserving things.

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This week's "modern life is dangerous to our health" bulletin comes from the US Journal of Paediatrics, which has expressed concern over our tendency to take the phrase "laptop" literally and balance the thing on our knees. As is usual when you look up health problems online, tons of potential side-effects appear – from increased risk of carpal tunnel syndrome to "elevated scrotal temperatures" leading to infertility. But now we have "toasted leg syndrome", an "unusual and unpleasant mottled skin condition" caused by the heat generated by the computer. Solutions are already available – the "Chillow", a cool foam pad to put on your lap, or the "Laptop Lilo" which apparently makes "using a laptop on your legs a joy". I might also venture to suggest using a "table", an item which you'll find is already widely available, and nearly always free of charge.

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