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Everything dies, including information

MIT Technology Review – Digitization can help stem the tide of entropy, but it won’t stop it. ” Everything dies: people, machines, civilizations. Perhaps we can find some solace in knowing that all the meaningful things we’ve learned along the way will survive. But even knowledge has a life span. Documents fade. Art goes missing. Entire libraries and collections can face quick and unexpected destruction.  Surely, we’re at a stage technologically where we might devise ways to make knowledge available and accessible forever. After all, the density of data storage is already incomprehensibly high. In the ever-­growing museum of the internet, one can move smoothly from images from the James Webb Space Telescope through diagrams explaining Pythagoras’s philosophy on the music of the spheres to a YouTube tutorial on blues guitar soloing. What more could you want? Quite a bit, according to the experts. For one thing, what we think is permanent isn’t. Digital storage systems can become unreadable in as little as three to five years. Librarians and archivists race to copy things over to newer formats. But entropy is always there, waiting in the wings. “Our professions and our people often try to extend the normal life span as far as possible through a variety of techniques, but it’s still holding back the tide,” says Joseph Janes, an associate professor at the University of Washington Information School.  To complicate matters, archivists are now grappling with an unprecedented deluge of information. In the past, materials were scarce and storage space limited. “Now we have the opposite problem,” Janes says. “Everything is being recorded all the time.” In principle, that could right a historic wrong. For centuries, countless people didn’t have the right culture, gender, or socioeconomic class for their knowledge or work to be discovered, valued, or preserved. But the massive scale of the digital world now presents a unique challenge. According to an estimate last year from the market research firm IDC, the amount of data that companies, governments, and individuals create in the next few years will be twice the total of all the digital data generated previously since the start of the computing age. Entire schools within some universities are laboring to find better approaches to saving the data under their umbrella. The Data and Service Center for Humanities at the University of Basel, for example, has been developing a software platform called Knora to not just archive the many types of data from humanities work but ensure that people in the future can read and use them. And yet the process is fraught…”

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