Monday, 13 October 2014

How an Information Society digitally stores, secures and retrieves its history. History is made from what information survives time.

Papyrus scrolls are fragile preservers of history. Cuniform clay tablets preserve history very well for thousands of years. Digital media preservation may be even more fragile than papyrus because its information volume will be too intangible and large to fully interpret. 
That may very well define the nature of the history studies of a digitally-based Information Society. 

Digital content and preserving history.

by Tom Thorne

This article is the 165th that I have written for this blog. It is 100 percent captured, stored and displayed by digital systems.  As I examined the stories and articles that I have done since the blog started in 2011, I realized that the blog itself has never been downloaded as an entity or entirety by me for any possible archival survival or simply as a backup. 

Certainly I have digital copies of all the stories on the blog, but the blog itself with its presentation, pictures and comments is not backed up until today when I finally did it. But the blog is also stored digitally and is about as secure as a future hard drive crash or a scratch on a CD or DVD. It also sits ethereally on some Google host computer located somewhere in the vast digital expanse of the Internet. 

I have no real idea where Google keeps this blog. I know that when I post during the morning in Belleville, Canada it is put up somewhere in the early morning somewhere else on planet earth. My blog usage statistics has a different day ending than the one I am living in Ontario. The day where my blog viewer statistics ends is at 21:00 hours Ontario time.

So I backed it all up knowing full well that if I place it on a hard drive or digital CD or DVD it could easily be lost in the future. That act provoked thought about what using digital media really means. History is made from what media survives time or by what information can be accessed. It is also true for print and broadcasting both audio and video which are all also stored as digital files these days.

Archives that were buried or lost from Sumerian times 4000 years ago exist today on clay tablets most of which are tedious records of transactions by merchants. These caches of history are usually discovered by accident and made sense of by archaeologists.  A small number of these clay tablets record literature or art so there is always a bias of communications. The media that survive are literally the message. What that means to an Information Society is a big question.

Ideas we have of ancient Egypt are gleaned from surviving temple stones with chiselled hieroglyphic texts or from the much more fragile papyrus scroll medium. I well remember in 2010 seeing several versions of the Egyptian Book of the Dead on papyrus in the Cairo Museum. It is a major preservation job to keep them from turning to dust. History is what survives as primary sources and as a result may offer only a fleeting fragment of what actually happened in those times.

In the case of these ancient texts on papyrus, clay or the fragile paper of the Dead Sea Scrolls for example, they are now also preserved and stored digitally while the originals are carefully put away in climate controlled storage.

Archives are regularly subject to the destruction of warfare. They are also destroyed by natural disasters or buried for safe keeping only to be lost when the human in charge dies or forgets where they are.  What survives becomes history. It can never be the full story. It is a selective story or account of a small window into human time and place. Digital storage of information is even more fleeting than paper, clay or stone.

Imagine a society that is interpreted in the future by a study of Facebook or Twitter files. Imagine all the blogs including this one that become the fabric for the social interpretation of our times.  I think I need to be much more responsible using this new medium if that is the case in the future. 

I like to think that this blog has some useful ideas and content, but a family blog showing their kids activities may have more sociological value to examining the 21st century than anything I say.  But how much will any of this survive as an archival record? They can be here today and gone tomorrow. Just zeros and ones magnetically held in place or burned into a plastic surface by a laser beam.

A few weeks ago we received a letter from our family doctor. He announced that he is retiring on 20 November 2014. He asked that we make certain that we order  our medical files which are in paper file folders and get them scanned and placed on a CD. Then whenever we find a new doctor we can present our disk. He has hired a document management company to do these backups at our expense.

As it turns out our doctor who we have had for 29 years has found a replacement but he wants a CD of our files when he takes over the practice in December.  We are having the backup disks made after 20 November. My wife’s file  is quite big and mine is average sized and we will be charged by the number of pages they have to scan.

This process calls into question paper versus electronic medical files. When the new doctor gets our digital file presumably the files will be digital from that time forward. I just saw a specialist who makes digital files as he talks to you. No paper, just notes on his laptop. My dentist does the same thing and is phasing out his paper files. My Income Tax is also a digital file each year. 

Hopefully these digital doctors and professionals have good backup systems so patient and client files are not lost in a crash. It seems to me that there is a huge digital document business is developing. At the moment these files are all held by individual professionals but it a short time until they will be all connected. 

In the medical world your health insurance number will access a digital file that shows the state of your health, medicines and pharmacy, specialists you have seen and any hospital stays. Ontario bureaucrats botched getting this running but it is inevitable since it is being done at the doctor’s office level.

This database will be digital so how it is secured and how it is stored and backed up is a crucial issue for our times. It will be able to offer a profile of what you cost the health system. It should stop duplication of dangerous prescription drugs. But where will this data be stored and secured and who will get to retrieve it? A future history drawn from these files will be able to analyze data to show the incidence of heart disease and cancer in the 21st century and how many people had dental mouth guards to stop them grinding their teeth when they are sleeping.

Digital history stores much more intimate information than ever before. Therefore it is more complex than ever before to manage. How so much data will be selected for use is an issue and how that information is pulled and selected from databases will define history of our times in the future. And if a digital system crashes then history will be redefined from what has survived just as it has been for the last six millennia from other more tangible media.

© Copyright, Tom Thorne, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

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