Congratulations on one of the best articles I’ve seen on the digital black hole we’re all keyboarding into (“Data Extinction,” TR October 2002). There are no silver bullets for this problem-not even encapsulation or the universal virtual computer. But there is hope if realization of the seriousness of the issue is matched with a couple decades of bearing down on the problem.
San Francisco, CA
The article on data extinction was an interesting effort to bring the problem to readers who don’t think about it on a daily basis. However, there was a bias toward some solutions and a failure to mention others. MIT’s massive digital-archiving project, called DSpace, was passed over in silence. The article also didn’t mention the thorny problems for digital preservation introduced by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which makes it illegal even to research some of the methods mentioned in the article. We can only hope that other, unconstrained countries will save the files we are creating with proprietary software.
Editor’s note: Readers of our MIT alumni edition will find an article on DSpace in the MIT News section of this issue. The article is also available online. Click on Current Issue.
When comparing paper records with electronic files, you neglect the main reason these paper records are useful today: they are written according to standards. Text is in a widely understood form, such as the English language; drawings are in colors that are visible to the human eye. Likewise, standardization is the key to preserving electronic information. Hypertext markup language (HTML) and its superset, extensible markup language (XML), would be excellent choices for the document format.
Your article on data preservation left out one important solution: microfilm. Any records manager or archivist would be quick to point out the value of microfilm in the preservation of information for the long term. The article states that old word-processing files are “lost forever.” This is clearly wrong. In my line of work, I preserve all types of general business documents on microfilm. Most organizations looking to preserve information have records in document form-not Atari games or Hitchcock movies. For these organizations, solutions are present, proved, and being sought after regularly.
Los Angeles, CA
Soldiers in the Nano Age
Your article on a nanotechnology-enhanced fighting force (“Super Soldiers,” TR October 2002) is excellent. At the Army War College, we have been studying the prospects of these developments for some time and have been looking forward to practical applications of nanotechnology; my students and I are largely convinced that the second half of this century will be known as the Nano Age. As your article correctly notes, spinoffs from military investments in this field will pay huge dividends to all mankind. And if it leads to robot soldiers-so long as they are our robots-press on!
Douglas V. Johnson
My wife and I recently had a close personal experience with the sort of fetal genetic screening that Jon Cohen discusses in his article (“Fetal Fortunes,” TR October 2002). About nine months ago, we began to undertake in vitro fertilization. We were lucky: we were able to have 12 good eggs surgically harvested. Nine eggs were fertilized by the injection of sperm. Then we then did something special: we had preimplantation genetic diagnosis. At four or five days of age, one cell was removed from each embryo and screened for Down’s syndrome. Due to a genetic error in my DNA, we discovered that we had a one-in-four chance of producing a child with Down’s syndrome. Of the nine fertilized eggs, eight grew to maturity, and three were “perfect” genetically. We are now eight-months pregnant with a healthy, non-Down’s syndrome baby. Considering my disorder, we would have had repeat miscarriages without this assistance.