9.0048 On the Mortality of Data (1/51)

Mon, 29 May 1995 08:37:53 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 0048. Monday, 29 May 1995.

Date: Mon, 29 May 1995 07:32:02 -0400
From: mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca (Willard McCarty)
Subject: mortality of data

Prof. Dr. Wilhelm Ott (Tuebingen) sent me the following message in response
to my announcement of the Tel Aviv conference on "Cultural resources in the
electronic era", Humanist 9.21. The message seems to me of sufficiently
broad interest to pass along, and I do so with his blessing.


Allow me two short remarks on the "specific questions" to be addressed there.

ad 2: "Texts and data written on punch[ed] cards are no longer readable,
whereas two thousand year old manuscripts can still be interpreted."
Punched cards are still readable: the code is simple and well documented;
the rectangular holes are at least as stable as ink on paper. Therefore,
the interpretation without mechanical or electronic tools, though
time-consuming, is no serious problem. This will not change as long as
the card itself is not dissolved. - More recent data carriers
pose more serios problems: try, e.g., to read a 556 bpi magnetic tape
(this was the up to date technology when I started to use computers;
we did not dare to use the new 800 bpi technology which came up those
days: we did not trust the safety of this "extreme" density).

ad 2: "digitization might ultimately be the enemy of preservation", and
ad 5: "What impact will this have on the preservation and transmission
of our cultural resources across generations?":
Preservation is no serious problem as long as the data are converted
carefully from one generation of data carriers to the next. But:
who will do this for data which at a certain time are no longer
considered to be worth converting?
Think of a book which has fallen from a library shelf 400 years ago
and which is detected physically undestroyed - and imagine a DAT
cassette containing gigabytes of compressed data, found physically
(and even magnetically) undestroyed after 50 years only ...

I have the suspicion that to the same degree that new techniques
allow for the fast and easy dissemination and multiplication of
information, to the same degree these techniques guarantee for the
safe destruction of this information.

I am sometimes tempted to find this a very wise (wisely planned?)

Wilhelm Ott


Willard McCarty, Centre for Computing in the Humanities (Toronto)
(416) 978-3974 voice (416) 978-6519 fax mccarty@epas.utoronto.ca