Is the most stable way to store data for the far off future just old-fashioned pen and paper, or set adrift out there somewhere in the cloud, locked into a series of backup hard drives, or is there another system that's even more secure and long-lasting?
In response to a post asking which of our left behind artifacts future generations will find the most revealing, a discussion began about how we could (or if we could) preserve our data in a way that would make future generations able to easily read, watch, or listen to it.
And methods ranging from salvaged electronics to paper files to even the remnants of our street signs were proposed:
Electronic devices still have metal frames in many cases, and will survive for many centuries to come. Just because something doesn't work, doesn't mean that archaeologists can't decipher its purpose or meaning. Data may rot, but assuming some continuation of humanity, that data will have lived on in some form or another.
I do believe that a ton of our info will be lost. But we do still have a lot of physical and written records —more so than ancient civiliations. It is just that we are now used to access to a ton of info. There was lots of info lost from those times as well, just no access to it. We produce more physical written records right now in a day than the sum total of all written records available from ancient civilizations in sum.
Street signs. They're pretty much omnipresent, but different for each polity. No better way to tell where all the borders were after an apocalypse.
Cell phones. Holy crap are there a lot of them. They cover the whole damn planet. I guarantee, in a million years, archaeologists will be able to find the remains of cell phones on every continent, in every climate. The sheer numbers are in their favor.
Imagine future scientists using bits and fragments from the sunken island of Manhattan to piece together the evolution of the iPhone. Massive debates over whether the iPhone 5s pre- or post-dates the iPhone 4. It'll be hilarious.
While other commenters pointed out that, even the data that does make it down will be removed from its original context — and the interpretation that yields could make all the difference:
From the journal of the Archaeological Institute of Epsilon Eridani:
"We are definitely dealing with a catastrophe here, as we have found a number of people buried in situ. Curiously, they are all carrying small, rectangular objects with relatively sophisticated (for this culture, at least) circuitry and indecipherable writing on the casing which I will reproduce here: Ver_zon, T-Mobil, Sprint, Cr'cket. I suggest that these are the names of their religious pantheon, and each object is a talisman that invokes the powers of the gods. Given that many of the individuals buried here had these objects placed against their auditory centers, it is reasonable to assume that they were crying out to their gods in supplication.
This is a reasonable interpretation given Glock'nor's recent decipherment of a short cryptic message on one of these objects: "Changed from Verizon to Sprint - cost me an arm and a leg!" Apparently, leaving the faith of one deity requires terrible sacrifice, and should not be taken lightly. Moreover, it appears that all adherents were required to pay a substantial tithe to the churches of Verizon, T-Mobile and the like or be ostracized from the faith.
The application "instagram" is pervasive across all talismans, possibly indicating a cultural change that promoted understanding regardless of religion. Apparently these people were required to provide photographic evidence of their daily meals..."
Perhaps the real lesson here is that there is simply no perfect data storage system, every way that we have to store our data will eventually degrade and pure chance may play as much of a role in what does survive as any of our best laid plans. And — whatever format you do choose — the most secure way to store your data for the future is to back it up in as many different sources as you can.
Image: Oleksiy Mark / Shutterstock