“The point here is simple. Data loss creates and exacerbates conflict. In a context of violent ethno-political conflict and with many fragile peacebuilding processes at play, data loss can often not just be catastrophic, it can be positively life threatening.” (Excerpt from Whipped cream and data backups)
I have for nearly a decade grappled with the challenge of digital information loss in peace processes. This is not a challenge getting any easier. We already know that we are losing more information than we are archiving. Despite personal efforts to archive vital information online, I know that due to personal negligence and / or the through the actions of a repressive regime, civil society will face catastrophic data loss on a regular basis.
Add to this the fact that there is no real agreement globally on how to archive digital information in formats that may be woefully outdated and inaccessible a decade or two in the future, and you begin realise the scale of the problem.
David Pogue, the New York Times tech columnist, has a revealing conversation with Dag Spicer, curator of the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley, where Spicer notes,
Making lots of backups is good advice, and on different formats, different places; consider paper as an archival medium. Some paper we have has lasted thousands of years. If Moses had gotten the Ten Commandments on a floppy disk, it would never have made it to today.
Reading the full interview is highly recommended for anyone interested in digital information archival.
There is however another way to look at this. A comment by someone called Brad in response to Pogue’s post offers what I found to be a rather refreshing worldview, though I’m not sure whether I would follow suit. It’s worth quoting in full here:
I’ve changed my thinking about all this in the past few years. I do backups, of course, but I’m not obsessed with ensuring that everything is archived and re-archived in new formats as media deteriorate or become obsolete. At some point you have to step back and ask yourself how important it is to keep all these photos and music and data, really.
When I was a kid, we had a big box full of family photos that we kept in a closet near my bedroom on the second floor. One year there was a leak in the roof, and by the time it was discovered nearly all those photos had been destroyed, stuck together and covered with mold and mildew. Other people I know have lost everything to fire or flood. Sure, it leaves a pang when you can’t spend a few hours browsing through the family photo or video collection and savoring (or not) the memories. But in the big picture it’s not a huge deal.
I had a box full of Zip disks and old floppies from the 1990s that probably had a lot of interesting stuff on them. But I knew I’d never get around to looking at them to find out, so I just had them securely destroyed by one of the companies that does shredding and document destruction. I feel “lighter” now not having the weight of all that stuff sitting around.