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The revolution will be webcast.

I routinely get annoyed by older people who don’t understand the why’s of technology.

Here’s a case study: paper vs. digital records of any type.  “Paper is better,” says this crowd, “because it is in an inherently readable form!   And it lasts longer than any other storage medium!  It isn’t subject to computer crashes and disk failures!”  I’ve heard all the arguments, and they’re all pure bullshit arguments coming from ignorance.

I have a copy of one of the original BBSes I ran in the early 1980’s.. every text file, every post.  I have most of my journals (the ones I kept in electronic form).  I have scanned copies of telephone bills from the late 1980’s.  I have every game I used to play as a kid.  Heck, I even have a lot of the analog media (music, TV shows) as well.  And it is almost guaranteed that I will continue to have all of this until the day I die.

How can I guarantee that?  Because data is fungible.  It’s a living entity: it isn’t an object.  Hard drives fail.  Media disintegrates.  But the data can live on, PRECISELY because it isn’t tied to the object that carries it.   It can be rewritten countless times.

Since I’ve been a teenager, I’ve made it a point to back everything up religiously.  Every year for the past 25 years, I’ve taken my archives and copied them to a bigger hard drive.. and then put the old hard drive in an offsite storage unit.  More recently, I keep a RAID 5 array at home.. but still, once a year, there’s this “buy a new hard drive, take the old hard drives out and lock them away” process that guarantees that everything gets copied. And even though my digital archive keeps expanding and growing, the space required to store it has actually gotten a little smaller over the years.  Hard drives are now smaller than ever, and store more than entire rooms of equipment did years ago.

Try that with paper.  No, really.   Try it.  Try expanding your paper storage capacity without expanding the space it occupies.

If I had a fire in my apartment tomorrow, I’d probably lose hundreds of books.  I’d lose a few weeks of mail.  I’d probably lose identity documents, such as my passport and birth certificate.  You know what I wouldn’t lose?

The lifetime of memories that is sitting in the storage unit across town on last year’s hard drive.

And that’s the point that gets missed.  Every year, the data is refreshed.  Even though the picture might be 15 years old, the bits on the media are never more than a year, maybe two, old.  Yes, I’ve lost individual item once and a while through bit rot and/or accident during the copy process.  There was the one year I completely trashed the backup of dustpuppy, which resulted in me losing some of the goofy stuff I did on that machine (like the “This is BS!” edit of the CBS bumper of that era).

If I cared, when it happened I could have probably fished around the previous year’s hard drive and found it.  I didn’t care.

Computer data is survivable precisely because there’s little, if any, incremental cost to copy and store it.  As computer storage capacity continues to increase, so does our ability to retain it.  And stewardship of the data is easier  as well.

The most recent bullshit argument, which demonstrates the fallacy the “paper is better!” crowd like to bring up, is “you can’t read a punchcard from the 70’s!”  Actually, yes I can (oddly enough, I can read punchcards, both in EBCDIC and ASCII, by hand.. as can anybody who’s ever worked with them).  But I don’t have to.

Why can I log in to my 25 year old BBS?  Because I copied the data off of the obsolete medium of Commodore 1541 floppy disks when I migrated to a new platform (then a Commodore Amiga) while the storage medium was still viable.  The 170 kilobyte disk image sits in my Linux ext3 filesystem RAID array, ready to be accessed with a simple command, that starts a C-64 emulator, mounts the floppy disk, and assigns the virtual C-64’s serial port to a UNIX TCP/IP socket that I can simply connect to at my leisure.  Since the emulator is open-source, and also backed up with the data, there’s no reason why (with proper stewardship) somebody 100 years from now couldn’t build the code (or at least analyze it and create a modern equivalent) and log in to the Neverending Story BBS of Anaheim, California circa 1983.

Oh, and guess what?  Through the magic of “the cloud”, I can now store that data in multiple datacenters in different countries operated by different companies, if I’m really worried that keeping a hard drive in a locked storage unit across town isn’t adequate.  As we move forward, the ability to maintain your personal “data soup” is only going to get easier.  Even without intending it, if I lost both my “active” copy at home and my “archive copy” in the storage unit I could probably reconstruct a small percentage of my personal data just scraping pictures off Facebook, my web server, and a few other scattered places.  Hmm.. maybe it’s time I get in the habit of the yearly rsync.

By being fungible, data is assured survival.  Hey, if a bored geek can do it to his prepubescent C-64 BBS, anybody can.


  1. Brian Enigma wrote:

    Because this is the internet and because when someone reads something on the internet, they instantly assume (rightly or wrongly) that it’s specifically directed at themselves, I’ll assume this is based on the thing retweeted last night — which I only half agree with for the very reasons you listed, but the original tweet hit at a very serendipitous time.

    At the time, I was in a conversation about old digital mediums. We started talking about an obsolete tape drive in a friend’s workplace and about how it might be hooked up to make use of the Unix “tar” command. (“Tape ARchive,” for any non-geeks reading this started as a command to zip up files for tape backup, but is still used to bundle together files in this post-tape world.) He talked about one person that had a stack of tape spools in his office. Nobody really remembered what was on it and it had probably suffered enough bit-rot that it would be illegible. That led to my story of zip disks and floppy disks, which I slurped up to CD years ago, then shredded. A few shoeboxes used a tiny fraction of the CD. CDs I burned on cheap discs 10 years ago have since been copied to new discs, DVD, or hard drive. So, I wouldn’t be able to read a zip disk these days, but the data I did have on them is still around. Therefore, the retweet.

    Somebody not maintaining their data over the years will have some difficulty reading it decades later (or impossibility). Badly kept books are the same. Musty books in moldy boxes in a leaky garage are not going to be usable. But given a forgotten shoebox of photos and a shoebox of 5.25″ disks, both kept in a reasonable environment, one is going to be far easier than the other to read. Not everybody religiously re-copies their data every few years like we do.

    Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  2. feedle wrote:


    But, the important part that I think is missed by people is the fact that data stored “online” _CAN_ be easily copied, inventoried, and “warehoused”.. whereas paper not so much. The costs of refactoring analog media is very high, whereas the cost to do the same to digital media is cheap.

    Books are heavy, information is light. But that’s another rant for another time (yes, it’s in the queue being written)..

    Saturday, February 26, 2011 at 8:27 pm | Permalink

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