Today, we still have the ability to read papyri that are five thousand years old, while we can no longer do the same with a letter written twenty years ago that is stored on a floppy disk, and in many cases, not even on the safest CD. This is because while digitization of information makes it possible, in many ways, to prevent deterioration (thanks to copies that exactly match the original), digital media are not indestructible. This is an entirely analogous process to that undergone by old “analog” media, such as photographs that yellow over time. However, digital media are more susceptible to damage due to their complexity. Even a little deterioration of the medium can make it completely unusable.
Few people have kept in mind that most CDs and DVDs, on which many people stored their data just a few years ago, often had a guaranteed lifespan of no more than five years when stored under “normal” conditions. This is because the material they were composed of deteriorates over time. Even media that promises to preserve data for 100 years can only reach that goal if stored under ideal conditions.
All this has led to what some call a technology paradox. Every year, humanity stores several tens of billions of gigabytes of data in digital format. To realize how impressive this figure is, imagine a column of sheets of paper that contained all this information would be about ten billion kilometers high, which transcends the boundaries of the solar system. However, most of this information is destined to be lost after a few years. For example, the floppy disks of the 1980s and 1990s often had a guaranteed lifespan of no more than a couple of years, and now reading one may be virtually impossible except by using expensive and complicated data recovery systems.
At present, the cloud is generally not an option for long-term preservation. Even assuming that the service where we store our photos and documents today still exists in 50 years, many services will delete data if its owner does not access it for an extended period of time.
The problem of preserving digital information is not often adequately addressed, whether we want to review vacation photos ten years from now or avoid surprises when we need to use the contents of a backup saved on a physical medium.
Research has made great strides in creating media that can preserve information for long periods of time, while also increasing the density of information storage. This density has grown tremendously over the years, from the 0.004 Gb per square inch of the first hard disks to the more than 1.2 petabits per square inch of prototypes based on innovative technologies.
To ensure the longevity of information, the only current method is to periodically transfer information to a “fresh” medium and store the media in controlled environmental conditions. This process is not a burden and also allows for the migration of information to newer media with greater storage density, enabling data consolidation to occupy less physical space.
This operation also requires a decision on which information to keep and which to discard, a choice that the increase in available space seemed to have made superfluous. However, it is actually essential in order to effectively utilize the saved information.