View Full Version : Digital doomsday: the end of knowledge

02-10-2010, 10:57 AM
Digital doomsday: the end of knowledge
02 February 2010 by Tom Simonite and Michael Le Page
Magazine issue 2745. Subscribe and get 4 free issues.

"IN MONTH XI, 15th day, Venus in the west disappeared, 3 days in the sky it stayed away. In month XI, 18th day, Venus in the east became visible."

What's remarkable about these observations of Venus is that they were made about 3500 years ago, by Babylonian astrologers. We know about them because a clay tablet bearing a record of these ancient observations, called the Venus Tablet of Ammisaduqa, was made 1000 years later and has survived largely intact. Today, it can be viewed at the British Museum in London.

We, of course, have knowledge undreamt of by the Babylonians. We don't just peek at Venus from afar, we have sent spacecraft there. Our astronomers now observe planets round alien suns and peer across vast chasms of space and time, back to the beginning of the universe itself. Our industrialists are transforming sand and oil into ever smaller and more intricate machines, a form of alchemy more wondrous than anything any alchemist ever dreamed of. Our biologists are tinkering with the very recipes for life itself, gaining powers once attributed to gods.

Yet even as we are acquiring ever more extraordinary knowledge, we are storing it in ever more fragile and ephemeral forms. If our civilisation runs into trouble, like all others before it, how much would survive?

Of course, in the event of a disaster big enough to wipe out all humans, such as a colossal asteroid strike, it would not really matter. Even if another intelligent species evolved on Earth, almost all traces of humanity would have vanished long before.

Let's suppose, however, that something less cataclysmic occurs, that many buildings remain intact and enough people survive to rebuild civilisation after a few decades or centuries. Suppose, for instance, that the global financial system collapses, or a new virus kills most of the world's population, or a solar storm destroys the power grid in North America. Or suppose there is a slow decline as soaring energy costs and worsening environmental disasters take their toll. The increasing complexity and interdependency of society is making civilisation ever more vulnerable to such events (New Scientist, 5 April 2008, p 28 and p 32).

Whatever the cause, if the power was cut off to the banks of computers that now store much of humanity's knowledge, and people stopped looking after them and the buildings housing them, and factories ceased to churn out new chips and drives, how long would all our knowledge survive? How much would the survivors of such a disaster be able to retrieve decades or centuries hence?

Fogbank fiasco
Even in the absence of any catastrophe, the loss of knowledge is already a problem. We are generating more information than ever before, and storing it in ever more transient media. Much of what it is being lost is hardly essential - future generations will probably manage fine without all the family photos and videos you lost when your hard drive died - but some is. In 2008, for instance, it emerged that the US had "forgotten" how to make a secret ingredient of some nuclear warheads, dubbed Fogbank. Adequate records had not been kept and all the key personnel had retired or left the agency responsible. The fiasco ended up adding $69 million to the cost of a warhead refurbishment programme.

In the event of the power going off for an extended period, humanity's legacy will depend largely on the hard drive, the technology that functions as our society's working memory. Everything from the latest genome scans to government and bank records to our personal information reside on hard drives, most of them found inside rooms full of servers known as data centres.

Excellent article. Read the whole thing. I think about this topic a lot since we have already lost some important data sets at my workplace. They weren't considered important when similar data sets were migrated to newer media. When their importance became known, it was too late. It would cost too much to rebuild equipment capable of reading the tape, assuming that the data hadn't already degraded.

New Scientist (http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg20527451.300-digital-doomsday-the-end-of-knowledge.html?full=true)