In the Future, the Past Won’t Be Present
History tends to leave behind mostly two kinds of information - the irrelevant and the biased.
Archaeologists are either digging up people’s thrown away junk, or reading some emperor’s pompous account of his
The archaeology of the future will involve carefully extracting random 1s and 0s off of media and theorising what it
all could mean. In the reckless and fast moving digital world, many stumbling blocks have been created that would
drastically inhibit future generations learning about our ancient digital existence.
- CD-Rs and DVDs rot
Sony’s original claim that your CDs would be good forever was a little optimistic. CDs and DVDs,
especially CD-Rs and DVD±Rs are
susceptible to literal bit-rot. Some cheap CD-Rs don’t even last five
- Forgotten sockets
will also pose a problem. It’s not very easy to get hold of a board with an E-ISA slot as it
is. Imagine how hard it is going to be to find a motherboard with PATA in 25 years. Connecting
wireless devices that use a long dead proprietary protocol may be even harder.
- Online services no longer available
More and more, our digital lives are being stored on the Internet. Not everything about a person
can be found on one machine. It would take masses of data collected from numerous sources to hope
to build a profile on a unknown person. In the same vein, having our data scattered far and wide
would increase the chances of at least something being found, rather than all your eggs in one
More and more, operating systems are overstepping the mark with their role in computing. It has
become common for the operating system to dictate how and where your software will work, or not
work. Microsoft Windows will enter a reduced mode when it detects a change in hardware, and has to
be reactivated. There is no guarantee that in the future, the servers needed to activate an old
unsupported version of Windows will even be around anymore, let alone Microsoft themselves in
their current form.
- Ties to hardware
Some operating systems such as Mac OS X or Amiga OS will not boot on anything but their original hardware.
In the near future TPM modules may severely restrict the ability to
access old and forgotten data without the original hardware. Advances in computing in the future may mean
that all this can be emulated and hacked, but that is still based on the notion that some selfless hacker
will do the work, because Microsoft, Sony or Apple certainly won’t.
- The Law
Companies have been faster to establish themselves in the digital realm then the government, and
the law. We have seen with shocking speed, large corporations move in and start laying down their
own laws how they see fit. If you want their goods, (and you do) you have to agree to any terms
they dream up, and there is not enough governing agencies or laws to protect you in the same way
you have protection against unlawful advertising and practices on the TV and in stores.
What’s more, corporations are pushing the government to create laws that protect them
and not you, against these practices. The DMCA
means that in North America it is a crime to reverse engineer any protection schemes to provide
interoperability. In the near future, there may be attempts to produce software or hardware to
ensure that data that is falling out of accessibility (due to corporations discontinuing support
for products and services), may be blocked by legal action; ensuring that only the parent company
has the key to unlock your data, and only when it suits them.
It goes without saying that as the speed of processing increases, cracking DRM will be easier, especially
if quantum computing becomes a reality. That said, DRM still places a lock on our digital data, which is
getting increasingly difficult to break, even to the point of being illegal (as above).
- Magnetic media
Magnetic media fades over time. Though this is obviously stated, it is last in this list for a reason. Even
if solid-state hard disks
become common, the data on them is still subject to many of the problems listed above; namely DRM, and
proprietary software / formats. The data could be around forever, but that still implies little to its
accessibility. Many floppy disks and magnetic media from the ’80s is beginning to fade away already.
Data That Never Dies
Surely all of this highlights the need for open-source software like Linux? However, this is still based on the
naïve assumption that just because the code is open, it will be around forever. People still need to host and store
the code and provide access via the Internet, often underfunded. If you can’t get the code easily anymore, how
open is it?
More so, Linux, and nearly all open-source software runs on proprietary processors and hardware. It can be
recompiled to run on other arcs, provided that you have the source,
the compiler, and the compiler is updated for the new arc (and the
compiler is compiled and running on the new arc). In the far future,
where so much has been changed, even old Linux source code and data could be so alien to new computers that is no
longer usable. That is also based on the assumption that open source operating systems will even be possible in the
future, given the barrage of attacks from the law, Trusted Computing and proprietary hardware that is protected by
DMCA. Open-source software may very well be either the dominant type of software in the future, or nearly wiped out.
Its future is not guaranteed at all just because it is open.
If you have something you want to say to the future, then you’re better off writing it on a piece of paper and
putting it away safely. The way things are going, we will be lucky if any of our digital data is readable
in 100 years, but your piece of paper could easily still be around.