Our past is more durable than ever

  • By Jonathan Good
  • December 14, 2011
Part 3: Our past is more durable than ever

Scientists’ best estimates suggest that our universe is a little under 14 billion years old [1]. Against that vastness of time, our human efforts to remember and be remembered can seem futile. And yet the existential threat of our mortality drives us to try and save our memories and those of the people we care about.

Less and less durable, until now

Over the millennia we have developed ever more advanced ways to preserve the past, but every innovation has been even less durable than the last. For thousands of years humans etched their names into rocks in an attempt to remember. Although stone seems permanent, most stone engraving will last just 300 years in typical outdoor conditions [2]. From stones that could only record names (and only the names of the elite), humans moved to papyrus and then paper as the preferred medium to record stories. The oldest paper book dates 256AD (in China), but this again is the exception [3]. Standard specifications for paper intend for it to last 100 years, and many kinds decay even faster [4].

The past two centuries have seen even more innovation in media from the invention of the photo and motion picture, all the way through to hard drives. Each medium lured humanity with a false promise: It would be cheaper, it would record more. What was never appreciated was that we were saving more of our memory for an ever shorter time. Even today, the idea that we can buy a 2 terabyte hard-drive for under $100 is appealing to most people. But hard-drives will be lucky to last just 5 years [5]. Backing up our files might make us feel good, but it isn’t all that robust.

Suddenly all that has changed. With digital information stored in the cloud, we not only have a cheaper and easier way to store more information but a much, much more permanent one. Amazon’s S3 service promises an astounding 99.9% accuracy over 100 million years [6].

How long media lasts

The naysayers will point out that Amazon’s calculation doesn’t include exogenous catastrophic risks. What if there is a nuclear war? Or an asteroid wipes out our planet? Or we do? But all of those would mean the end not only of the Internet but also of all our photos, our libraries and even the names we etched in stone. If anything, the Internet is the best hope we have that the information about our lives can exist beyond the confines of this beautiful planet of ours.

Our disappearing childhoods

The chart above shows that we have finally broken the paradigm that as publishing gets easier it also becomes less durable. But it also hides a more troubling insight. The most fragile and endangered memories in the world are NOT those of our parents or grandparents but our own. Photos from the 1890’s are more stable today than the photos we snapped in the early 1990s. Similarly old 8mm film is more stable than our family home videos on VHS and DVD. It is the ultimate call to action - our childhoods can last for close to forever, but only if we act now.

The Internet as our memory

So if the cloud has virtually unlimited capacity and can last practically forever what will we do with it? We are already beginning to depend on the cloud as our "collective memory." Rather than knowledge residing in our heads, it’s digital, online, searchable...

Next: The Internet is becoming our memory

Or click here to see the whole series.

Footnotes and sources

1. You can read about different calculations of the age of the universe on Professor Wright’s page at UCLA here.
2. Information on how long stone engravings last is here. It is worth noting that the very oldest inscriptions date back to the third millennium BC and tell the tales of Sumerian Kings.
3. Here is an image of the oldest book.
4. Standard specifications for paper are here.
5. Statistics from Google show that 40% of drives failed inside 5 years. Read more here.
6. Amazon’s S3 durability is explained here.

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