Monday, April 14, 2008

Thoughts on the Passing of a Zip Drive

In my household we try not to let too much old technology pile up, so after my wife bought a new laptop the other day, we began saying good-bye to her old Mac tower. It gave good service from about 2002 to a couple of years ago, and one of its features we're going to miss is its Zip drive. Zip disks were a removable magnetic-disk storage medium that were popular from the mid-nineties until flash drives came along. The first Zip disks held 100 MB, which was later boosted to 250 MB, but with 1-gig flash drives so cheap now I can't imagine there's much of a market for Zip drives now. Thing is, we have about 40 or so Zip disks that have stuff on them going all the way back to 1988, when my wife first learned to do graphics on a computer. Some of it has been backed up here and there, but if I had to tell you where, I'd be in trouble. So I spent yesterday afternoon transferring a good many of those old Zip disks to a backup drive, and it got me to thinking about the permanent impermanence of digital storage.

Every two to five years or so, a new generation of storage media come along. If the new generation didn't rise up and commit parricide on the previous generation, it wouldn't be so bad. But the hallmark of modern technology is "creative destruction," so for a new storage medium to be successful, it has to drive the previous medium out of existence. True, you can usually find antique drives, media, and even computers that use them if you look hard enough, but having to hunt around and assemble your own computer museum just to read some old files is hardly practical for most people. So the only alternative if you don't want your old data to go away as definitely as if you wrote it on paper and threw the paper on a bonfire, is to transfer it to the next medium. Which is fine for another two to five years, and then. . . .

And that gets me to wondering, what am I saving all this stuff for anyway? The inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil wrote about this in one of the most human-sounding passages of a book about how we're all eventually going to live as software on hardware that will take over the universe (you think I'm kidding, go read The Singularity Is Near). His father Fredric was a musician and music teacher who fled Germany in the 1930s for the U. S. When he died at 58, the son inherited a large volume of paper documents, recordings, and other memorabilia. After starting a project to digitize all this stuff, Ray reached a conclusion which is as simple as it is startling. It was this: "Information lasts only so long as someone cares about it."

Like many of Kurzweil's philosophical epigrams, it contains elements of truth. I'm sure lots of information, in the form of paper, hard drives, old floppy disks, and so on, is eradicated every day simply because nobody needs or wants it any more, and the space or money it takes up is needed for something else. But just because somebody cares about information doesn't mean it will necessarily endure. Along with caring, the people interested in the data need the resources it takes to preserve it—whether that means space, funding for periodic migrations to new media, or archeological work.

In a way there's nothing new about this. People have been making choices about what information to save and what to toss ever since the invention of writing. Writing and paper are different in degree from Zip disks and flash drives, but not in kind. They are all technologies for the storage of a non-material entity—namely, information—using material media. You can make a good argument that the invention of writing made civilization possible, in that laws, history, customs, religious traditions, and most of what makes a culture could then be preserved independently of particular people with both good memories and the ability to pass their memories on to other people who could do the same. And I'm not one of these people who sit up at night worrying that historians of the future will have nothing to go on after the global catastrophe that wipes out all computer memories everywhere—although if that did happen, we'd all have a lot to worry about, not just the historians.

If we knew for certain whether anybody in the future would care about this or that data file, things would be easier. But you never know. Certain kinds of information, such as emails in the Executive Branch of the U. S. government, are just assumed to have historical importance, which is why the Bush administration got in some trouble a few months ago after admitting that they appear to have "lost" some emails covering several years, and had to recover them from backup tapes.

But for most ordinary, non-historical personages like myself, the candidates for people who will care about your information include yourself in the future, your relatives and children, and maybe a few friends and associates. It's actually a pretty short list. And unless you're a professional historian or plan to become the subject of one, if you don't think your list of carers-in-the-future would be interested in your tax return for 1982, you can just go ahead and throw it away.

Sources: Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near (Viking, 2005) carries the story of his attempts to archive his father's legacy on pp. 326-330. Zip is a registered trademark of Iomega Corporation, which still sells Zip drives, so maybe I won't worry about backing up those remaining disks just yet.

1 comment:

  1. I read Fantastic Voyage, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, and they changed my life. I even found some of his lectures on Itunes and I find myself impatiently awaiting his next book.

    Recently read another incredible book that I can't recommend highly enough, especially to all of you who also love Ray Kurzweil's work. The book is ""My Stroke of Insight"" by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I had heard Dr Taylor's talk on the TED dot com site and I have to say, it changed my world. It's spreading virally all over the internet and the book is now a NYTimes Bestseller, so I'm not the only one, but it is the most amazing talk, and the most impactful book I've read in years. (Dr T also was named to Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People and Oprah had her on her Soul Series last month and I hear they're making a movie about her story so you may already have heard of her)
    If you haven't heard Dr Taylor's TEDTalk, that's an absolute must. The book is more and deeper and better, but start with the video (it's 18 minutes). Basically, her story is that she was a 37 yr old Harvard brain scientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, and thanks to her amazingly loving and kind mother, she eventually fully recovered (and that part of the book detailing how she did it is inspirational).

    There's a lot of learning and magic in the book, but the reason I so highly recommend My Stroke of Insight to this discussion, is because we have powerfully intelligent left brains that are rational, logical, sequential and grounded in detail and time, and then we have our kinesthetic right brains, where we experience intuition and peace and euphoria. Now that Kurzweil has got us taking all those vitamins and living our best ""Fantastic Voyage"" , the absolute necessity is that we read My Stroke of Insight and learn from Dr Taylor how to achieve balance between our right and left brains. Enjoy!