Records Don’t Last Forever

I had a conversation recently with a friend, and we discussed information. Nothing complex, we just marveled at the way we had seen the way we collect information change in our lifetime. We were going through stacks of records at her place and I mentioned that I had gone almost completely digital. I’m an analog guy, just ask Mulvey. But what I’m more interested in now is the compactness of information rather than quality. That is, the very weight of the information I was keeping in my apartment, whether it be printed books, or music and movies on discs, had become too heavy for me to accept in my life. I have purged much of this physical material from my immediate surroundings, shedding hundreds of pounds of weight in the process. (Most of it joined my paintings in storage, so it’s still a bit of an anchor. But the point is, my immediate surroundings are lighter.)
All of the music I own has been ripped onto a hard drive, and I won’t be buying any more cd’s unless it’s something that isn’t available online. The movies I don’t worry about unless I get a hankering to see something specific, and then it’s worth the three bucks just to rent it online. After all, it’s a good bet any movie I watch I won’t want to see again for years. As for the books, most of what I own I haven’t cracked open in the slightest since the day I finished them. They really were just taking up space and weighing me down. Intellectually, they are the most valuable items I own, but who has the time to reread a book?
It was painful packing them up, however. I’d grab a handful of books from the shelves to pack away, and there would be at least two or three that I loved. Just seeing them in my hand again made me want to drop everything and start reading. This happened dozens of times. When I realized how ridiculous this was, how impossible it would be to commit the necessary time, it became easy to just toss them in the boxes and seal them up. Into the storage space they went, along with the paintings, the only items I own in there that I truly cannot do without.
I’m not all the way there yet. I still have some real paper books; all the ones I haven’t read yet. And I have some DVDs. But like I wrote above, the music is all ripped and stored, at about 15% of the quality of the original media.
And that’s the problem with digital. It has made information lighter, but it’s done so by, well, making it lighter. And lighter information, unlike lighter human beings, is not necessarily a good thing. It represents loss of information. Incompleteness. Corruption. And it’s spreading.
What we are finding in the digital age is that, rather than information being preserved more effectively, we have shortened the lifespan of information. If a book is printed on quality paper with quality ink, and is bound well, it can sit on a shelf for literally thousands of years and lose none of its information. But manuscripts that were written by great authors only thirty years ago, and stored on big floppy disks, are now virtually inaccessible. Computer disks decay at a rate measured in years, not millennia, and storage formats and operating systems have changed so rapidly in the last generation that oftentimes it takes specialists in computer forensics to extract information first encoded not all that long ago.
Information is spreading more rapidly due to the internet, which mitigates much loss due to decay and formatting issues. But the corollary to that is inaccurate information is also spreading. Books are a useful example here, as well.
There is a whole segment of the population that no longer likes to pay for information. Representing mostly music and movies, pirating is costing media companies big. But there are also pirated books. And while the quality of pirated music and movies is pretty consistent, that is, there is little if any noticeable deviation from that available from legitimate sources, for books it’s another story.
Pirated books are generally rich text files made from jailbroken epub files or even scans using software designed to convert printed pages quickly. The result, especially with the scanned files, are typos. Lots of typos. Below is a comparison of three short sections from Isaac Asimov’s book Prelude to Foundation. The top of each is taken from a legitimate copy purchased from the iBooks store, while the bottom is from an epub file I made from a bootleg rtf file I got from a Torrent. Who knows what went on at the source. The sections are taken completely out of context here, so don’t worry if they don’t make sense (although the first section may have had something to do with my idea for this post). They don’t need to make sense. They only need to showcase the corruption that can happen to information, especially when it becomes free. I’ve highlighted the differences in the text.

Dors said defensively. “Records don’t last forever, Hari. Memory banks can be destroyed or defaced as a result of conflict or can simply deteriorate with time. Any memory bit, any record that is not referred to for a long time, eventually drowns in accumulated noise. They say that fully one third of the records in the Imperial Library are simply gibberish, but, of course, custom will not allow those records to be removed. Other libraries are less tradition-bound. In the Streeling University library, we discard worthless items every ten years.
“Naturally, records frequently referred to and frequently duplicated on various worlds and in various libraries—governmental and private—remain clear enough for thousands of years, so that many of the essential points of Galactic history remain known even if they took place in pre-Imperial times. However, the farther back you go, the less there is preserved.”
Dors said defensively. “Records don’t last forever, Hari. Memory banks can be destroyed or defaced as a result of conflict or can simply deteriorate with time. Any memory bit, any record that is not referred to for a long time, eventually drowns in accumulated noise. They say that fully one third of the records in the Imperial Library are simply gibberish, but, of course, custom will not allow those records to be removed. Other libraries are less tradition bound. In the Streeling University library, we discard worthless items every ten years.
“Naturally, records frequently referred to and frequently duplicated on various worlds and in various libraries-governmental and private remain clear enough for thousands of years, so that many of the essential points of Galactic history remain known even if they took place in pre-Imperial times. However, the farther back you go, the less there is preserved.”

Seldon said, dismayed, “I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You’re not. Hummin’s asking it. I must guard you. After all, I failed in connection with Upperside and should make up for it.”
Seldon said, dismayed, “I can’t ask you to do that.”
“You’re not. Hummin s asking it. I must guard you. After all, I faded in connection with Upperside and should make up for it.”

“I know,” said Seldon. “Sometimes I wonder what he really wants of me.”
“What he says,” said Dors. “He’s a man of strong and idealistic ideas and dreams.”
I know, “ said Seldon. “Sometimes I wonder what he really wants of me.”
“fit he says, “ said Dors. “He’s a man of strong and idealistic ideas and dreams.”

Most of the differences are minor. Only two turn sentences into nonsense. But all the typos in the bootleg version presented above happened within a few pages of one another, and there were others I didn’t include. Over the course of a 600 page novel, we’re now talking hundreds if not thousands of typos. And all this loss of information occurred in the merely thirty years since the book was first published. It gets worse. It didn’t take thirty years for the typos to happen. It took a day. The day the bootleg file was made. And now this file is proliferating across the hard drives of the world. If information does want to be free, then this free version of Asimov’s book could become the most popular version, even though its information is corrupted.
Preservation is one of the battles we face with all the information we’re producing these days. Recent past generations were known by their factories and machines, now turned to rust. It’s a virtual guarantee that what we will be known for, our information, will be indecipherable in the not-too distant future; collections of random squiggles in computer files, if they can even be accessed at all. Should science ever discover a way to store information without loss, that will be a good thing for longevity, but will have no effect on corruption due to flaws in the people or software that produces the information. The person or persons that bootlegged Asimov’s book and the software they used are now as responsible for the information contained therein as Asimov and his editors. So, I guess the point is, score another one for analog, even if it does mean you have to keep too much shit in your apartment.

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