In a hundred years…

Mr. Neil Gaiman may be forgiven if he thinks I’m picking on him, but something about this link on his Tumblr struck a nerve with me:

I kind of like the idea of being semi-forgotten, so that each person who stumbles across something I’ve written, and likes it, can think of me as their own private discovery — this obscure 20th/21st century author, who no-one else in their school, pod, zone or L5 colony has ever heard of.

For those few people who don’t know Mr. Gaiman, he is the author of the Sandman series of graphic novels. I came across them while crashing at a friend’s after a Terry Pratchet-related pub crawl. They’re dark, violent. They describe a mythology all of their own with several aspects of existence being personified by the Endless: Destiny, Dream, Death, Desire, Delirium (nee Delight), Destruction, Despair. If any series of graphic novel deserves to be discovered by some nerdy type in the year 2525, then this one is it.

But it’s not likely to be, unless something happens. Why do we have books written more than a thousand years ago? Why can you go to a library today and find words written by Jules Verne, who died in 1905, more than a hundred years ago? Or William Shakespeare? Why can we read about Reynaerde the fox, whose stories were written down in the 1300s, and may be even older than that? How can we see the Bible, portions of which were written many thousands of years ago? How can we see the paintings from the caves of Lasceaux? Well, there’s a reason for that. People read these books, noted the decrepit state of the pages, and transcribed them on new paper. In some cases, such as the Rosetta Stone, the original is still there, because the material used was strong enough to withstand the teeth of time.

So now that we have computers, we’re alright aren’t we? Well, no. And there’s a few reasons why we aren’t.

The first problem is the medium. Magnetic tapes and magnetic disks don’t stay magnetic. Leave them in your vault for about ten, twenty years or so, and they’ll be unreadable. Another problem is, paradoxically, progress. When I started developing an interest for computers, the medium of choice was the audio cassette. This was followed up by the 5¼” floppy. One of those could take 180 kilobytes of data. There were convenient little punching machines that you could use to cut a write-enable hole in the disk, to double the capacity to 360 kilobytes by dint of flipping the disk over. A kilobyte, by the way, is one-thousandth of a megabyte. The tale of Bannog and Ariciel, in its native flat text format, takes up 701966 bytes. I would have needed three 5¼” floppies (flipped over) to store it. After that, we got the high density floppy (1.2MB), the 3½” floppy that today is the symbol for “save file”, but is no longer in serious use, and then the CD. Now, CDs are being replaced by flash memory. Any data on floppies is now inaccessible normal PCs. In a hundred years, I’d be very surprised if computers still came with a USB connection. And anyway, flash memory decays, so even if it did it would probably be reduced to noise. Which, dear friends, is not an improvement on plain simple paper.

The second problem is the file format. You should ask Project Gutenberg about this. They use flat text files to store their books. While this makes the books a bit bland to see, it does ensure that anyone with a computer can read it. By contrast, if you write your stories in Word, by the time the next release rolls up, you risk losing formatting, or even losing the whole file. If you happened to write the thing in WordPerfect, Wordstar, FrameWork, or any other one of the word processors pushed out of the market by Microsoft, then you’re completely out of luck.

But these problems, though they will prevent a sizable part of our culture from aging more than, say, twenty years, are not deliberate. They are a natural effect of the world moving on. Which brings me to…

The third problem. A large part of what passes for culture these days is locked up. Literally. DVDs are deliberately made to be unreadable in any part of the world but where their rights holders (shorthand for “the person who cheated the artist out of his just deserts”) say they should go. Books in electronic format are “protected” by software that deliberately scrambles them so you can only read them if you pay for it. What this means is that if you come back in a hundred years, when all the companies that made them will be forgotten, these books will be random noise. Which means that it will be impossible to stumble on something like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman stories unless someone puts in the effort to keep them alive.

So where are our modern day Dead Sea Scrolls? How do you ensure that the words you write today can still be read in a thousand years? Well, first and foremost, the authors and writers themselves can help, by choosing the right file format to publish their books in. This means, basically, HTML. HTML support is ubiquitous. It has support for special effects in the text that plain text doesn’t have. The old and venerable ASCII standard lies at its base, and it can even encode characters that aren’t in the ASCII standard, so that Arabic or Chinese texts can be preserved.

None of which will help, of course, if the power goes off. So if you want your words to survive the collapse of civilisation and the end of the Internet, then all you can do is print. Paper (papyrus, parchment), is still king of the world for really long term preservation.

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