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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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We could lose it all

02 Apr 2024

I've already written a few columns about the risks associated with archiving data for the long term but today I present a slightly different twist.

Chances are that if you look hard, you'll find a bunch of CDR or CDRW disks you burned back at the turn of the century to archive some (then) important files, pictures or other data. How would you read those files today?

If you're lucky then you've probably still got, or at least got access to, an old PC with a CD/DVD drive -- but how long before that's also consigned to the ever-growing pile of ewaste that threatens to engulf the planet?

Have you checked those old old optical disks to make sure there's nothing on them that might need to be shifted to a more contemporary storage medium?

Perhaps you've already done this and now, like many of us, have a drawer filled with USB flash drives or those one to four terabyte external hard drives that are so popular today.

Bad news if you have...

I say "bad news" because over time the charge leaks from the memory cells that make up flash memory and cyber-alzheimer's sets in. Likewise, a hard drive is more likely to fail when sitting in a drawer than when actually operating -- so you have no guarantee that when you actually want that "safely archived" data, it'll still be accessible.

However, today I'm not talking about computer data or archiving your tax records.

I want to talk about archiving our culture and our history, for future generations.

Go back half a century and you'll find that most music of the era was released in a number of physical formats. Most albums were simultaneously available on cassette tapes, vinyl, and CDs. We were spoilt for choice.

Likewise, a few decades later, your favourite movie or TV show could be had on VHS tape or DVD.

Even today, I have a very comprehensive library of CDs and DVDs containing music and movies that I enjoy listening to or watching on a semi-regular basis.

What about 2024 though? How do we distribute our movies and music? How do we get our news and information? How do we document history?

Well physical media is almost dead today.

We stream our videos and music, we access our news and other information via the internet, with no physical storage involved at the consumer end.

This leaves me wondering what would happen if we were to encounter a significant "event" that caused massive destruction and obliterated key parts of our infrastructure?

Well I know that with a few solar panels and some batteries, I could still watch my favourite movies, listen to my music collection and enjoy plenty of good books -- but what about those who rely on more contemporary services rather than physical media?

No Netflix, no Disney+, no Spotify, no One News... nothing!

By switching entirely to streaming or broadcast services for media, the contemporary consumer runs the risk of being left entirely high and dry if "the worst" happens.

Now that, in and of itself, is not such a big deal. Nobody ever died for lack of being able to listen to the top 20 popular hits of the year.

However, the more important consideration is that decades of our culture and history could be lost forever, due to the etherial nature of how it is stored and distributed these days.

If a wave of nukes or EMP devices take out Amazon's cloud servers and most of the satellites orbiting above, will those electronic records of events in the 21st century and all those creative works from artists, musicians and producers be lost forever? Will future generations discover a huge gap in how we have documented ourselves, simply because we kept no physical media and relied entirely on streaming or broadcasting?

Food for thought?

Carpe Diem folks!

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