Is it Safe? The Fragility of Data

My daughter works in the airline industry and when the news of the missing Malaysia Airlines flight was reported she offered the notion that the black box recorders were outmoded. “Why isn’t all flight data instantaneously sent to the Cloud?”

Given the fact that the plane is already in the clouds, this would seem logical but experts have said the huge number of daily flights would produce gazillions of bits of data so storing it would be costly.

I have no idea technically what the Cloud is or how it works except that info is stored remotely via the ether rather than on my computer, but my visceral response is to distrust any panacea that purports to permanently archive data.

Like the sinister villain of Marathon Man we kept asking one question: “Is it safe?” And the answer when it comes to houses, cars, possessions, people and data always seems to have been the same — no.

Since record keeping began, record losing has been a problem. It is estimated that the drama-crazy 5th Century BCE Greeks produced 1,600 plays. Forty survive. The great library of Alexandria required every ship that came to its bustling port to permit the copying of any manuscripts aboard as part of the price of doing business. In its day, it was the greatest repository of knowledge the world had ever known. It burned.

In the recent prize-winning history, “The Swerve,” Stephen Greenblatt argues that the rediscovery in the 15th century of a few lost, ancient texts, especially “On the Nature of Things” by Lucretius, may have caused a swerve in the course of history ushering in the Renaissance.

The perishable nature of information and the wisdom it contains is not an archaic problem. The 1890 Census of the United States, for example, was a model of modernity, the first ever to be tabulated by labor-saving machines. But in 1921 a fire in the basement of the Commerce Department destroyed almost half the irreplaceable records and a bureaucratic bungle in 1933 led the Library of Congress to discard the rest.

Between 1912 and 1930, 11,000 silent films were produced in America, the quintessential medium of modern times. Today, 70 percent are entirely lost and only 17 percent survive in complete prints. Much the same is true of early television, many early sound recordings and talking pictures.

In “Lapis Lazuli” by W. B. Yeats, one of he greatest 20th Century poems, he calls attention to the endless “civilisations put to the sword./ Then they and their wisdom went to rack.” And by way of example, he names Callimachus a sculptor “who handled marble as if it were bronze” — another Praxiteles or Michelangelo. Yet not a single work of his remains.

Perhaps digital data will be more enduring than every other previous medium devised, but I fear the ephemeral-sounding Cloud will offer no more guarantee of permanence than stone tablets, papyrus, vellum, paper, film or tape. All in time crumbled, oxidized, demagnatized into dust and the data was lost.

Make multiple copies, back it up like crazy, bury it, archive it, share it but I fear it’s still a crap shoot whether your data will outlive you, let alone survive for a more distant posterity.

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