Data Panic

An alarming front-page story in today’s New York Times bemoans the fleeting lifespan of digital data. The focus is on storage media that wear out (CD-Rs come in for special criticism) and the danger that todays’s major data formats will…

Nov 10, 2004

An alarming front-page story in today’s New York Times bemoans the fleeting lifespan of digital data. The focus is on storage media that wear out (CD-Rs come in for special criticism) and the danger that todays’s major data formats will become obsolete. Someone new to this subject might conclude from the Times piece that they should return to the old routine of printing and physically archiving every photo, document, or piece of correspondence.

But as Technology Review has explained in articles published over the last two years, our computer files are not about to melt into air. One simple (albeit annoyingly time-consuming) way to make sure files are always accessible is to periodically migrate them from old media to new ones. And as TR columnist Simson Garfinkel pointed out last year, formats such as the JPEG image compression standard and the PDF document standard are so well-documented and universally accepted that it’s inconceivable that software in the year 2030 won’t be able to to work with them.

In short, panic is not in order. Sure, you should back up your data so that it’s not all on one breakdown-prone or easily-stolen device. And yes, you should try to move files from your old computer to your new one before the old one becomes inoperable. But a new flood of paper printouts is the last thing our forests, or our creaky, overstuffed file cabinets, need.