December 2007

Depending On Digital

By Jez Strickley


Digital data storage is the background radiation of modern life, infiltrating the supermarket checkout till and high street bank just as easily as the doctor’s surgery and secretary’s office.  From financial accounts and students’ essays to music downloads and mobile phones, the versatility of the digital world is seemingly limitless.  Its greatest development to date, perhaps, is that Wunderkind of the modern age, the Internet, an information tool which, in every likelihood, is merely the first course on the digital menu.  All of which begs the question: Is this increasing dependence on all things digital the dawn of a brave new world, replete with bite-size libraries and instant messaging, or simply a breathtakingly ignorant case of putting all our eggs in one and the same basket?


The rise of the digital age is arguably the single biggest leap in data storage technology of modern times.  Sound and vision are now recordable as so many bits and bytes in an electronic domain which goes above and beyond the cogs and wheels of industrial know how.  This meta-world of information transactions leaves the average citizen in a backwash of technical ignorance, confined to an array of user friendly interfaces which, by and large, only broaden the vast gulf between the consumer and the principles by which their flat screen television and wireless handset quietly function.  In short, it is a world outside the ken of the common user.  What is more, the invisible interplay of wavelengths and frequencies, ones and zeroes which fashions codes of data into a favourite rock track or literary masterpiece, is now the primary thoroughfare of information handling.


The development of digital data stands upon the shoulders of two unsung giants of information technology: paper and the printing press.  In the course of daily life these twin innovations in information storage and distribution are consummately sidelined, and almost wholly ignored as commonplace inventions of bygone times.  In point of fact they represent full scale revolutions insofar as record keeping is concerned, forging and crafting the very fundaments upon which the digital age now rests its increasingly weighty and arguably precarious cargo.


Whatever our attachments to the printed page and its understated importance, the arrival of its digital progeny has brought with it a volume and convenience of information keeping as yet unrivalled – and virtually impossible to resist.  Vast reams of data can now be readily condensed and held in toto in a piece of plastic small enough to fit on a key ring.  It has opened up windows of debate of global proportions, creating virtual communities of users whose lives echo with the advantages of digital.  But this is precisely where the problem at the heart of this electronic paradise lies.  For it is the sheer range and capacity of this facility which presents us with its most damning defect.  In brief, digital storage is in no way watertight, and if society continues to consign the accumulated knowledge of the age to the leaky vessels of the digital world, there is the very real possibility that innumerable facts and figures, details and particulars could be lost forever, creating an historical void into which modern life will be flung.


Random file corruptions, software viruses and hardware failures may be routine enough to be the staple ingredients of computer usage, but what of a less immediately noticeable issue such as program compatibility?  If an important file, for example, is stored in one format, and that format becomes obsolete, there is the danger that unless the problem is addressed quickly, the data stored in the outmoded format will be lost.  The matter of compatibility may not sound like a priority problem, but with the seemingly relentless upgrading of programs and operating systems it presents an information loss time bomb steadily ticking towards zero.


In the December 2006 edition of Popular Mechanics (see Brad Reagan tackles this very quandary, amongst other topics, in his article ‘The Digital Ice Age’.  In the course of his exploration Reagan sets out a further, equally important matter.  He points out that “Personal accounts from the Civil War can still be read today because people took pains to save letters, but how many of the millions of e-mails sent home by U.S. servicemen and servicewomen from the front lines in Iraq will be accessible a century from now?”  Reagan’s comment is critical.  The academic’s weighty tome is all very well and good, but its body of research depends upon personal testimonies, and it is this which gives history its grit – a grit which could be lost to the vagaries of digital data storage if the proper measures are not taken.

In the midst of unpacking the problem of our digital reliance Reagan goes on to state that it is an issue which is “…immediately apparent and invisible to the average citizen.”  Reagan’s second observation is the most troubling.  How mindful, for instance, is the average user in the business of backing-up their non-essential files, such as old letters, e-mails and other personal details?  In fact, the problem of missing or inaccessible data is barely acknowledged beyond the relatively trivial loss of an e-mail or the failure to download a file.  It is unsurprising, therefore, that the potentially yawning chasm opening up in tomorrow’s history books does not even merit a blip on their digital radar.


The loss of personal histories may prove less immediately significant to the focus of modern life, but there are other far more pressing concerns to be faced.  The loss of crucial medical data, for instance, could endanger scores of lives; the corruption of police records or intelligence information could expose the public to unchecked criminality.  Even more seriously, an error in the hardware of a nuclear arsenal could threaten a global danger not witnessed since the darkest days of the Cold War.  And, if this sounds like nothing more than shoddy scaremongering, just bear in mind the point that with more and more information being electronically stored, and fewer and fewer hard copies being made, all our information eggs are well and truly being packaged up in the same basket – and we are all aware of the lesson of that particular proverb.


Digital technology represents a growing raft of data, available across a gamut of media and accessible at the press of a button.  It has its drawbacks, but these are not about to lead to its abandonment.  It is important, therefore, that the perils of cashing in on a single mode of information storage are thoroughly recognised and addressed.  Technology may give us the solution in terms of cleaning up viruses and dealing with compatibility problems, but even these answers still leave us with a single basket of information.  What is needed, instead, is a multiple basket approach, in which common sense backing-up of files and documents in a range of formats becomes a commonplace routine.  For the individual user, external hard drives capable of storing terabytes of data are readily available, as are online storage facilities.  Regularly burning important details onto CD and keeping multiple file copies on separate USB drives are further common sense insurance policies against data loss.  All of which might sound needlessly irksome and time consuming, but the extra seconds spent copying a valuable document will be priceless should the original version ever become corrupted or, to use a technical term, simply vanish.


Each of the above remedies is supported by digital technology, and so each of our auxiliary information baskets is, in its turn, ultimately prone to the very problems it seeks to avoid.  To move beyond electronic data storage and establish a non-digital information basket, free of the issues plaguing digital storage, means going back to basics.  And as Brad Reagan concludes, “…a printed copy is sometimes the best form of backup.”  Indeed, in the final run of things it is the printed page which offers us a way out of our digital dependence, however cumbersome and space-consuming hard copies can be.  All of which, rather ironically, returns us to the twin forebears of the digital world and to an approach to information keeping that, despite its own disadvantages, provides us with largely hassle-free information retrieval and a mode of data stockpiling which is immune to the software virus, hardware issues and compatibility headaches of its digital offspring.  In fact, the humble printed page has a great deal to be said for it, so let us try and make sure that at least one of our baskets is paper-based.