Soon we will all be Software Archeologists

One of my pet peeves is the ridiculously short lifetimes of digital media.  I remember 9 track mainframe tapes and 5.5 inch floppies: technologies that thrived in an ancient bygone epoch known as the Eighties. Good luck trying to read 9 track tapes or 5.5 inch floppies today! You will have better luck with older paper punch cards. Punch card readers are hard to find these days but you can see the damn card holes with your own eyes! In fact you don’t even need eyes to read punch cards. I once knew a blind mainframe programmer that banged out massive FORTRAN programs by feeling the holes on punch cards. Try that with a USB flash drive.

Of course I appreciate that you can stuff the data from an entire filing cabinet of 5.5 inch floppies onto one modern USB flash drive but I am disturbed by the fact that all those gigabytes will soon be more unreadable than cuneiform. I am not the first to worry about our distressed digital data. Kevin Kelly considers the word “storage” a dangerous misnomer and advocates the use of “movage” instead. You had better move your data from old to new formats or you will lose it!

Rosetta Ball

Rosetta Ball

Movage is one of the reasons I have not jumped on the eReader bandwagon. Replacing myriagrams of books with one lightweight tablet is appealing but iPads and Kindles are not stable! High quality books have shelf lives measured in centuries.  With digital media you’re lucky to get through a decade.  It’s a good bet you won’t be able to read what’s on your eReaders in ten short years!  You poor dumb suckers will have to repurchase your library just like you repurchased your record and movie collections. It’s not in Amazon’s or Apple’s interest to worry too much about media durability. Fortunately some people do worry about media stability.  Check out The Long Now’s Rosetta project for what I consider a stable medium.

To belabor this point, while I was unpacking boxes of old-fashioned books, (we recently moved again),  I came across a notebook I put together for a poster I presented at the 1994 APL conference in Antwerp. My notebook contained a paper version, still eminently readable, and four 3.5 inch disks.  My oldest computer has a vestigial 3.5 inch disk drive so I tried copying these sixteen year old disks. Some of the disks were unreadable, (surprise surprise), but I was able to recover a directory containing my poster’s source. Some of these files were old Microsoft Word documents. Word 2007 could not read them! Even when bits survive changes in software can render them useless. Fortunately I loathed Word in 1994, a sentiment I still maintain, and wrote my poster in \LaTeX.

\LaTeX source is dull ASCII text. Civilization will collapse before we lose the ability to read it! Of course \LaTeX, like Word, has changed since 1994 so, just for the hell of it, I decided to compile this old document with MikTeK 2.9.  It didn’t compile;  I was missing some old graphics macros and a key style file. It didn’t take me long to fix these problems. I replaced the graphics macros with standard \includegraphics{} commands and converted all the Windows *.bmp files to *.png files. Google even found the long-lost missing style file qqaaelba.sty in arxmliv. After making these trivial changes pdflatex.exe gobbled my poster source and moved Using FoxPro and DDE to Store J Words into the 21st century.