The Fragility of Information

How stable is the state of information storage on the planet today? How much do you know about the life of your great grandfather? How much of your own past would you remember if you lost all access to your personal data? And how likely is it that all of the world’s information could be lost?

Information is inherently fragile.”

In recent past we printed out copies of paper or burned CDs or DVDs to back up information stored online or in computers. But now the trend is to digitize as much information as possible and go ‘paperless’. We make ourselves feel better by creating ‘backups’ and making our systems ‘redundant’, but how stable are these information systems, really?

If for example, one file was damaged via corruption, every time it was copied thereafter, it would be a copy of the corrupted file. When you went to restore the file from a burned CD, you may find that the tiny ‘pits’ on the CD have decayed and the CD is no longer readable.

Or when you went to access the information, you found that it was stored on a medium that is no longer accessible (such as a floppy disk, which is only readable from a floppy drive) or a file type that requires a computer program or operating system that no longer exists.

While the latter type, what I’ve aforementioned as The White Album Problem, can be overcome through a constant and persistent ‘copy, transfer, and upgrade’ cycle, it doesn’t account for the former type which is bad data and certainly doesn’t overcome the Worst Possible Outcome.

The Worst Possible Outcome

The Worst Possible Outcome is that we, as a society have digitized all of the world’s information and stored it on electronic information systems that run on electricity. There are no paper copies of any information, but it is all available at our fingertips. Humanity rejoices!

But then one day a freak solar flare from the sun bathes the earth in electromagnetic radiation, destroying all electronics, and plunging us into total darkness. There are no paper books, no paper maps, and no paper manuals on how to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new”? It has been already in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after.” -Ecclesiastes 1:9-11

How many times has near total information loss happened before? Let’s look at some modern examples of information loss. At NASA they forgot how the Saturn V rocket worked and are now trying to figure out how to make it work again:

“A team of engineers at NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Centre in Huntsville, Alabama, are now dissecting the old engines to learn their secrets…Testing pieces of a rocket that hasn’t fired in nearly 50 years isn’t easy. They aren’t exactly lying around shops in test condition, they’re in storage units and museums.”

But the knowledge loss wasn’t limited to the rockets. After the Apollo program was ended, the crawlers used to move the Saturn V rockets were set aside and those who built them moved on to other projects. When the Space Shuttle project was first growing, NASA had to spend large amounts of money putting the crawlers back together, because the technology had practically been lost.

In the May/June 1973 issue of Saudi Aramco World, Richard W. Bulliet wrote in “Why They Lost The Wheel”, “Eastern society wilfully abandoned the use of the wheel, one of mankind’s greatest inventions,” opting instead to use camels, which were more suited for travel than the horses and chariots used earlier in Egypt and Rome.

There are other examples of lost technology such as The Antikythera Mechanism, “Discovered in a shipwreck in 1900, this device was built around 150-100 BC with levels of miniaturization and mechanical complexity that weren’t replicated until around 1500 years later. After much speculation, in 2008 scientists determined that it tracked the Metonic calendar, predicted solar eclipses, and calculated the timing of the Ancient Olympic Games.”

Damascus Steel swords, which were generally made in the Middle East anywhere from 540 A.D. to 1800 A.D., were sharper, more flexible and harder/stronger than other contemporary blades. They were also visually different, having a marbling pattern called “damask,” that hinted at a special technique/alloy. But production gradually stopped over the years, and the highly-guarded technique was lost – no modern smiths or metallurgists have been able to definitively solve the techniques/alloys used in forging those swords.

John Ochsendorf, the architectural rebel who champions ancient engineers recently wrote that, “Old masonry buildings are stressed very low, and so the fundamental issue is that we had knowledge accumulated over centuries, or even millennia, which with the Industrial Revolution was essentially thrown out and we don’t really build like that anymore. Engineers are taught today in universities that there are really two dominant materials—steel and concrete—and so when they come to an old structure, too often we’re trying to make old structures conform to the theories that we learned for steel and concrete; whereas it’s more useful generally to think of them as problems of stability and geometry, because the stresses in these monuments are very, very low. At root, the fundamental issue is that we’ve lost centuries of knowledge, which has been replaced by other knowledge about how to build in steel and concrete. But today’s knowledge doesn’t necessarily map easily onto those older structures. And if we try to make them conform to our theories, it’s very easy to say that these older structures don’t work. It’s a curious concept for an engineer to come along to a building that’s been standing for 500 years and to say this building is not safe.”

How does information get lost?

Information is inherently fragile. There are many ways that it can be lost. From data corruption to fire to war to flooding to electromagnetic pulse to the simple act of forgetting to record the information in the first place. The latter is the most common and most dangerous of them all.

At NASA (and other large [and small] organizations) there is a ‘group think’, shared-brain mentality where the corporate knowledge of the organization is enough to get by during finite periods of time. Organizations can operate as long as there is not too much turnover or brain drain.

But what happens when a large portion of the workforce retires at the same time, or a region suffers a local catastrophe, or information is not thought to be needed now, but may be very important later? What happens when the information is never recorded in the first place?

Have you ever heard the term “Recorded History“? Have you ever wondered why there seems to be a time in history when there is no written record of any events before that time? What could have happened to prevent knowledge transfer?

It could be false pride that is leading us to believe that we are the only generation of humans to get to this point in technological evolution or it could be that previous generations digitized there information to the point where no historical evidence of them now exists.

If someone a hundred years from now was tasked with proving you existed, what information would they use to prove that point? Would they rely on government databases? An abandoned Facebook account? What if there were no computers? No Internet access? How then?

The reason we know even what we know now about Jesus, famous leaders, and former Presidents, is because people wrote this information down on a piece of paper and someone copied it. When computers came along, the information was digitized and copied further, but if we stop copying, the information stops.

When the Bible was being copied by ancient scholars, there were error correction measures put in place to ensure that verses were copied exactly as intended. What memory correcting mechanisms do we have for modern day digital photographs, documents, and other digital information?

What are we supposed to do?

There are two things that have worked in the past:

  1. Copying information to new formats using error correcting mechanisms
  2. Varying the ways in which information is stored across mediums
  3. Languages grown, change, and die out, requiring new translations over time

Here’s some practical examples using this blog as the example:

  1. WordPress may not last forever so at some point I may have to switch to a new platform and transfer and translate my data to the new format
  2. A catastrophe could take out the servers that host this information or we could lose the ability to read it so it could be printed
  3. If modern, subsequent language morphs from English to some new language, then the blog would need translated over time

In general, things people care about the most are printed, backed up, copied, and distributed, but sometimes events conspire to erase even the most important information. Information is inherently fragile and we must always be vigilant to keep that which is most dear to our hearts.