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Recordkeeping

One of those nerdly things that makes me break out in a cold sweat from time to time is the extraordinary fragility of digital information. Now that just about every crucial piece of information in my life is stored as bits and bytes, my brain shuts down in a panic whenever I think about how impermanent stuff like that really is. No one is going to find my iPhoto library or blog archives one thousand years from now and be able to study them.

Of course, I have to confront this issue all the time. I regularly back up data, but it's still all going on to the latest flavor of the months used for storage. Over the years I’ve transferred all my work from floppies to Syquests to Zip disks to Jaz disks to DAT tapes to CDs to DVDs to portable hard disks. I have to sweep through all my archives now and then just to make sure nothing's been damaged or corrupted.

However, I still have drawings I made almost thirty years ago, and my original birth certificate. that’s the magic of paper, my friends. Paper is the 800-pound-gorilla of the digital revolution. Even shitty paper tends to last longer than any digital storage medium. Good paper will can easily outlast you and everyone you know. I’ve flipped though stuff printed on paper that’s older than the U.S. Constitution, and every letter on it was still clear as day.

Of course, most of the information stored electronically would be barely intelligible on paper, not to mention really dull. Source code is murky, after all. So maybe out need to record things has grown beyond paper, but our ability to save all those words and numbers and ideas hasn't yet. So, like Tom, the seemingly simple question of what five things would I print out before the collapse of the internet almost paralyzes me with anxiety when I consider the implications. It's like the challenge presented in Fahrenheit 451 (memorize one book to preserve it) or The Time Machine (bring only five books with you to help help rebuild civilization), but even scarier in many ways, because the reality of the problem isn't so far-fetched.

So load up on some toner, some decent paper, and file cabinet kids: you never know what could happen.

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