In 1988 Keith Feinstein bought a Star Wars arcade game for his college dorm room. Besides keeping him in beer and pizza money for the next four years, it also launched him on a personal journey that has lasted into the present: he now owns more than 900 vintage video arcade games, which he exhibits in a traveling show known as Videotopia. “People cry,” says Feinstein, who is now 34, and who remembers a childhood complete with the earliest Pong console and an Atari 2600 he loved. “They can walk into an exhibit with hundreds of machines, and in all that incredible cacophony, they run right to their game. These games were a part of our lives. They were our first interactive media.” Some of Feinstein’s lovingly preserved devices are probably the last working models on the planet-the only machines where the 20-year-old software behind these games can come alive on the hardware it was meant for.Just about the time Feinstein bought his first arcade game, Abby Smith was completing a PhD in medieval Russian history at Harvard University. She was troubled, though, that only a handful of writings from before the 14th century-mostly liturgical documents-had survived the tumult of Russian history. How much had been irretrievably lost? How much of her own time was going to be lost to the future? Something about those questions struck Smith as far more interesting than the work she was doing, so she threw over Russian history to specialize instead in library science. For the past two decades, Smith has helped the U.S. Library of Congress in its task of preserving history. At first she occupied herself with such tasks as saving Lincoln’s original Gettysburg address from deterioration, but as our culture has grown more digital, Smith has in turn become ever more focused on solving the problem of preserving digital artifacts. She is currently director of programs at the Council on Library and Information Resources, a Washington, DC, nonprofit organization that’s helping the Library of Congress draft a proposal asking legislators to fund research on a long-term solution. “The layman’s view is that digital information is more secure, when in fact it’s far more ephemeral,” she says. “We know how to keep paper intact for hundreds of years. But digital information is all in code. Without access to that code, it’s lost.”
Smith and Feinstein are working opposite ends of the same problem: how to preserve digital things-data, software and the electronics needed to read them-as they age. Paper documents last for hundreds of years, but more and more of what matters to us is digitally produced, and we can’t guarantee that any of it will be usable 100, or 10, or even five years from now. Feinstein’s contribution toward staving off digital obsolescence is to scour flea markets for old circuit boards that might have the chips he needs to repair old games; he is obsessed with keeping every game in his collection working. Smith’s approach is to develop a plan for preserving culture itself; she is obsessed with guaranteeing, for example, that 300 years from now, people will be able to read files that locate nuclear-waste sites. Both are faced with the knowledge that current methods for preserving digital things work poorly, even in the short term.
Just how bad is the problem? Examples of digital things lost forever abound, some personal in scale, some global. Software patents that can be infringed freely because the original software no longer works, preventing the patent holders from proving prior art. Land use and natural-resource inventories for the State of New York compiled in the late 1960s that can’t be accessed because the customized software needed to open the files no longer exists. NASA satellite data from the 1970s that might have helped us understand global warming, were they not unreadable today.
But far worse is yet to come. “Once you begin to understand what’s going on at a more technical level,” says Smith, “you realize that what’s lost could be catastrophic.” We can count on paper documents to last 500 years or longer, barring fire, flood or acts of God. But digital things, be they documents, photographs or video, are all created in a language meant for a specific piece of hardware; and neither computer languages nor machines age well. The amount of material at risk is exploding: the volume of business-related e-mail is expected to rise from 2.6 trillion messages per year in 2001 to 5.9 trillion by 2005, according to IDC, an information technology analysis firm. Maybe most of those messages deserve to be rendered unreadable, but critical documents and correspondence from government and private institutions are in just as much danger of digital obsolescence as spam.
Then there are databases, and software, and images, all of which are in a constant state of change: JPEG, for example, the standard many digital-camera users rely on to store family photos, is already in the process of being outmoded by JPEG 2000, a higher-quality compression standard. “Unless we do something drastic,” says Margaret Hedstrom, professor of information at the University of Michigan’s School of Information, “in one or two or five years it’s going to be very difficult for people to look back and see the photos they took.”
Proposed solutions include migration, which consists of updating or sometimes entirely rewriting old files to run on new hardware; emulation, a way of mimicking older hardware so that old software and files don’t have to be rewritten in order to run on new machines; and more recently, encapsulation, a way of wrapping an electronic document in a digital envelope that explains, in simple terms, how to re-create the software, hardware or operating systems needed to decode what’s inside.
All three solutions, however, have the same sticky problem: the fixes themselves are time-bound, able to work only for several years, or perhaps a few decades, before another fix needs to be made. They also require us to act now to preserve what we think might be important to the future. “We have the problem of how to preserve digital media-hard enough to solve-and we have the additional, impossible responsibility of deciding what to save,” says Smith. “Nothing will be preserved by accident.”
A newly proposed solution, ironically enough, might make use of a very old technology: paper itself. Not to preserve all the digital documents we are creating in hard copy, but rather to preserve the specifications for a decoding mechanism-a kind of “universal computer” defined by a few hundred lines of software code-that will allow the documents to be deciphered in the future. Archived on paper and across the Internet, the mechanism would be guaranteed to survive for centuries. Proponents of such an approach say it will make it possible to preserve everything-a complete record of humanity. Maybe then history can finally stop repeating itself.