Modern History Gap

Storing information is easier than ever, but it’s also never been so easy to lose it — forever. We could end up with a modern history gap.

By Charles Piller, LA Times Staff Writer
September 13, 2006

Carter G. Walker remembers the day her memories vanished.

After sending an e-mail to her aunt, the Montana freelance writer stepped away from the computer to make a grilled-cheese sandwich. She returned a few minutes later to a black screen. Data recovery experts did what they could, but the hard drive was beyond saving — as were the precious moments Walker had entrusted to it.

“All my pregnancy pictures are gone. The video from my first daughter’s first couple of days is gone,” Walker said. “It was like a piece of my brain was cut out.”

Walker’s digital amnesia has become a frustratingly common part of life. Computers make storing personal letters, family pictures and home movies more convenient than ever. But those captured moments can disappear with a few errant mouse clicks — or for no apparent reason at all.

It’s not just household memories at risk. Professional archivists, those charged with preserving the details of society, tell a grim joke: Billions of digitized snapshots, Hollywood movies and government annals, they say, “will last forever, or five years, whichever comes first.”

Socrates described memory as “a block of wax … the mother of the muses. But when the image is effaced, or cannot be taken, then we forget and do not know.”

Digital storage methods, although vastly more capacious than the paper they are rapidly replacing, have proved the softest wax. Heat and humidity can destroy computer disks and tapes in as little as a year. Computers can break down and software often becomes unusable in a few years. A storage format can quickly become obsolete, making the information it holds effectively inaccessible.

No one has compiled an inventory of lost records, but archivists regularly stumble upon worrisome examples. Reports detailing the military’s spraying of the defoliant Agent Orange in Vietnam, needed for research and medical care, were obliterated. Census data from the 1960s through 1980s disappeared. A multitude of electronic voting records vanished without a trace.

Records considered at risk by the National Archives include diagrams and maps needed to secure the nuclear stockpile and policy documents used to inform partners in the war on terror. Much like global warming, the archive problem emerged suddenly, its effects remain murky and the brunt of its effect will be felt by future generations. The era we are living in could become a gap in history.

“If we don’t solve the problem, our time will not become part of the past,” said Kenneth Thibodaux, who directs electronic records preservation for the National Archives. “It will largely vanish.”

Humans have long imprinted collective memories on available objects, inscribing stone slabs, marking paper, etching paraffin cylinders and finally encoding computer disks. Chinese astronomers of the Shang Dynasty etched the words “three flames ate the sun” onto an ox scapula to pass on their celestial observations.

Thirty-two centuries later, that “oracle bone” confirmed for today’s scientists an ancient eclipse, which allowed them to recalibrate their understanding of how the sun affects the Earth’s spin.

Suppose those early stargazers had scratched out their findings in secret code on a mud flat. In effect, that’s what NASA did when it used digital tape to store spaceflight data from the 1960s and 1970s. The observations could have helped unravel today’s climate change and deforestation mysteries, but by the 1990s most of the tape had degraded beyond recovery.

Federal practices haven’t improved much since then. Leading archivists said that the records of George W. Bush’s presidency would probably be far less complete than those of Abraham Lincoln’s.

In Lincoln’s day, scribes vigilantly penned events and actions momentous or minute. Trusted records were viewed as essential to legitimize government and preserve citizens’ rights. The bureaucracy generated a fairly complete record of what the government did, including voluminous chronicles of the Civil War.

Future historians will have a harder time with Iraq war records, created in several digital formats, some of which are already obsolete, said David Bearman, president of Archives & Museum Informatics, a consulting firm in Toronto.

In 20 years, pushed aside by waves of cheaper technology, “those records will be very difficult, if not impossible, to retrieve,” he said.

Digital files are also remarkably easy to destroy, by accident or design.

Just after the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989, Air Force historian Eduard Mark was assigned to write a history of the campaign. When he found the right records, the officer in charge was seconds away from a single keystroke that would have purged every daily “situation report” prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, data crucial to understanding the conflict.

Soon after, Mark had an epiphany.

“I spend much of my life burrowing around in archives. Curiously enough, I had never noticed that the offices I worked in were not generating much archival material” or systematic records of any kind, he said.

Historically, the Pentagon created vast paper trails memorializing orders for paper clips, D-day battle plans and heated policy debates. In the 1980s, computers replaced typing pools and file clerks. Carbon copies were gradually replaced by perishable e-mails, cryptic PowerPoint slides and transient websites that can be deleted instantly.

It’s more than a loss to history.

“If officials leave no paper trail,” Mark said, “how can they be held responsible for their actions?”

At the same time, though, more information than ever is being created and stored.

UC Berkeley scientists estimated in 2003 the world’s annual output of digital content stored on magnetic and optical media such as hard drives and compact discs, not counting films, TV shows or websites. Their upper estimate was equivalent to 500,000 times the print holdings of the Library of Congress.

Yet a few generations from now, this period may be the most obscure since the advent of the printing press, partly because of the structure of digital files.

As a book, “War and Peace” is a literal representation of Leo Tolstoy’s words. Properly stored, it would be readable for hundreds of years. On a CD, “War and Peace” is an encoded string of 0s and 1s. Without the right descrambling hardware and software, the disk is best used as a coaster for a cold drink. More and more, documents are produced only in digital form.

“We are capable of producing perfect copies, which confer a kind of immortality on the things we create,” said Rand Corp. archives expert Jeff Rothenberg. Yet those copies require software “to make them real.”

What can be done when old devices and software are eclipsed? Electrical engineer Charles Mayn, 63, has spent his career answering that question.

He runs the preservation lab of the National Archives — a museum of archaic wire recorders, Dictaphones and wax cylinder players — where movies and audio files are transferred from obsolete to contemporary media.

Mayn’s toughest challenge was 11,000 hours of audio recorded in Germany after World War II. It contained thousands of unique interviews of war-crime defendants and witnesses, such as assistants to the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, who conducted horrific experiments on death-camp inmates.

“Mengele was wanting to find out what happens to pilots if they fly too high, the air’s too thin, they come down too fast,” Mayn said, referring to one recorded interrogation. “So the technician helped with experiments on prisoners in pressure chambers.”

The interviews, which contain crucial details otherwise lost to history, were recorded with a “Recordgraph,” on 50-foot long, one-inch wide, nested plastic belts. The device cut grooves into the plastic much like those on an old vinyl record.

Not a single working Recordgraph machine could be found to play the interviews.

So Mayn built two from scratch.

Over a decade, the interviews were moved to quarter-inch audiotape. Kept cool and dry, tape can last 50 years. But soon after the job was finished in the mid-1990s, the last factory making quarter-inch tape closed its doors and players are no longer made.

Today, everything the Archives rerecords is going digital. The old media are dead.

Mayn said that like the Recordgraph and quarter-inch tape, he’s among the last of his breed. No one could build a replacement DVD player from scratch, because there’s no reasonable way to resurrect the software once it is lost.

“Someone a few centuries out who found a [Recordgraph belt], can kind of figure it out — put a needle on it and get sound back,” he said. “If they find a CD, there’s just nothing there.”

The National Archives building in Washington is inscribed, “What is past is prologue” — a fitting aphorism for the agency that conserves the nation’s heritage.

The agency is spending $308 million on an electronic system regarded as the first step to solve the digital archive problem. Yet a chief method the agency uses, translating information onto more contemporary media, is like a child’s game of telephone. Every transfer loses shades of meaning.

The difficulty and cost of the process prompted WGBH, Boston’s public broadcasting television station, to hedge its bets. It purchased 6-foot-tall, 1960s-era video recorders and shrink-wrapped them in cold storage to ensure a way to play back a unique collection of Boston Symphony concerts from 1955 and an interview series hosted by Eleanor Roosevelt, featuring such luminaries as then-Sen. John F. Kennedy.

Transferring data gets more difficult over time. New material emerges at an ever-greater rate. Technical descriptions that allow old documents or images to be viewed on new devices must be appended to each file. Such descriptions gain complexity with each migration and soon outgrow the original documents.

The limits to the Sisyphean migration strategy have stimulated several new approaches.

The Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico operates a website that converts academic papers in physics and other fields into several digital formats, increasing the likelihood that the information will be readable as software standards evolve.

Scientists are also working on universal translators — software designed to operate on any computer and translate any software to the latest standard — and “emulators” to mimic old digital files for use on modern devices.

But those methods are also imperfect, another reason that the records of modern society could become like the artifacts of a primitive culture — fascinating, but mysterious and full of gaps.

Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist who coined the term “virtual reality,” describes what’s at stake this way:

“If you let forgetting and remembering happen arbitrarily, you’re losing part of yourself.”


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