Like Sand Through Your Fingers

Computing is way cool, huh? Got to love it. All the great new technology and devices. Things are mostly sweet on the computer, but only if you use a Mac. What a great time to be alive!

People say that all our data, all our music, our pictures, and even our home movies are going to last on their new CD medium for a hundred years or more. We can be proud that our grandkids and even their kids will be able to see us and read or watch what we do today as we live our lives at the beginning of a brand new millennium.

Fact is, there is a dirty little secret about computing that almost no one ever talks about.

The secret is that the medium we store all our beloved data on won’t last out the decade. Let alone last to the next century.


Think about it.

Your trusty hard drive is how old? Your data stored on that, regardless of how good the device is, will not likely be around in five to ten years. Or if it is, what will the computers of the future do with it?

Maybe you have an old, old computer, from the eighties, say. Or maybe you have a lot of floppies from that period of time. You might even have a ten-year-old CD somewhere in your closet or attic. Have you got a way to read those files today?

If your computer happens to have a floppy drive, and if you can get the data off your floppy disk and into your computer, do you still have the program that created those files so it can be read? Would that old program your files were written with even run on your new compute or its new OS?

There were only so many kinds of computer storage media in use a decade ago. There were hard drives, expensive and very slow. There was tape media for backups. There were floppies and later there were CDs. Along with this there were the computers that used those hard drives and floppies, and the brands of tape drives, mostly incompatible with each other. CD burners back then were of questionable ability. Even most of the applications that people used back then to create their data are no longer in existence.

Where is your ten-year-old data now? I have some excellent data files I would love to show everyone, but they are in PageMaker 1.0 and in Infini-D 2.0. At the time I created these files, there was not a way to save them in some affordable universal format available that could be read by anyone’s computer. If I wanted to open these files again, I would have to find an old Mac, and the original apps, and then perhaps I could convert my documents to a modern PDF format, and my old animations to videotape or DVD.

You see the problem we all face with our current data. Some day there will be no more apps or data formats that we all use today. Things change, especially in these days of chaos management and unrelenting progress.

Ah, but you say, “That will never happen to me. My files are in easy to read QuickTime, and MP3 formats, and my Word files are all RTFs, so I don’t depend on apps to read my data.”

I hope you are right. I hope all these currently popular formats are around for decades to come.

But what if some day they are no longer in fashion? What if the computers and applications you use today are not around ten years from now? What will become of your data then?

There is another part of this dirty little secret about computing that people are just beginning to find out about. CDs and disk mediums don’t last very long.

Here is a link about this growing problem:

The same problem may be true with the newer technology of the DVD format medium.

If CDs, many of which are advertised to last up to a century, are not really reliable for long-term data storage, what can anyone use in their place?

Hard drives are little better for long term reliability. This is not only because there may not be a computer available that can read their format. The fact is, that hard drives are cheap today because they are built cheap, and not meant to last a long time. Otherwise why would you need to buy another one down the road from the same manufacturer?

Oh, perhaps you could fill that 120 GB hard drive with all your data and store it safely away somewhere, but how do you know anyone will be able to retrieve the data from it in a decade or more? Or read that data in the format you saved it in?

What about tapes? I know some digital tapes that were created as backups more than sixteen years ago, and they are still readable. However, they are readable only on those original devices, which are also sixteen years old, and only on those old computers with their old applications. How long will that data last now? With care, perhaps a long time, that is, if the read devices and computers last too.

But there are very few ways to transfer data from an old format to something more modern, and it is equally hard to find a way to store that old data again in a new, more universal format, and on a more modern media such as CDs or DVDs.

“OK. I know! Lets all store all our stuff on videotape!”

Before you do that, you might want to read the disclaimer that the manufacturer puts on their videotape packaging.

If CD’s and other disk and tape medium are not all that reliable, what is the use in spending all the time and money converting that old data to some newer format?

You want to know the best media for storing your documents and pictures?


Paper documents and photos last a very long time, even if they were not meant for archiving.

Do your parents have any old documents or photos around? How old are they? How many decades?

Therefore, get a clue. Forget the current hype about computing. Sad to say, all the hype by the disk manufacturers is probably no more reliable than any Microsoft hype. That means that their products are not going to be reliable for the long term either.

If you want to really store your valuable data for your children and their children, print out all that data on museum quality paper and photo paper.

Do you know what that is? Most paper, especially the kind you buy in reams for your printer, has a high acid content, and will likely degrade in a decade or more. So, too, will anything you print on that kind of paper.

If you want your documents to last a very long time, you will have better luck buying the more expensive museum-grade paper that has a very low acid content. Then you can print out all your data on that medium.

After that, all you will need to do is find a vault somewhere, which you know will still be around in a century or two, and store all your documents there in airtight containers, preferably filled with Nitrogen or another inert gas.

Oh, and make a detailed will that will require your children and their heirs to keep up the payments on that vault space. You don’t want the future owners deciding to throw out all that old stuff, now do you?

This is all so depressing!

I thought like everyone else that what we were creating today would be around for a century or more, and that someday people would marvel at what we had done.

Fact is, even if the storage medium we use today will be around in a hundred years from now, the data will likely be so degraded that it will be forever lost. Or else, it will be in a format that no one has seen or used in nearly a century.

After all our technological advances, plain old, dumb paper, the same medium our ancestors used, remains the best medium for storing our data and photos on.

Paper remains the single medium available to us to send a message to our children’s children of who we were, what we thought, and what we did.

“Hey! Wait a minute! What about all my music? What are we gonna store it on to save it for our kids?”

(Do you really want your kids to hear the kind of crap rap and punk music you listen to today?)

[ [ [DISCLAIMER: The author sincerely apologizes in advance if he has offended anyone with his privately held views on any musical performer and/or their listener’s musical tastes, and is sincerely contrite, apologetic and sorry! ] ] ]

How was music stored before computers, before cassette tape, and before records?

How do we know what kind of music people listened to five centuries ago? Mozart and Beethoven?

Well, they had this excellent media called musical notation, and it was stored on the medium of paper.

People today recreate that ancient music, written in all that excellent musical notation, and we have modern recordings and MP3s we can listen to, to hear the exact, and most excellent and uplifting music that was played and enjoyed back in the 1600’s.

What? Eminem doesn’t record his music in musical notation? It’s all on videotape? Everything Madonna and Snoop do is only on videotape and CDs?

(Sigh!) Probably just as well.

If it is lost to the ages it likely is no great loss.

Its just sand through our fingers, after all.

Roger Born

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