Blog Archive for the ‘Digital Dark Age’ Category

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Storing Digital Data in DNA

Posted on Thursday, August 16th, 02012 by Laura Welcher
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Schematic of DNA information storage.jpg

Reported in Science today, scientists George Church, Yuan Gao and Sriram Kosuri report that they have written a 5.27-megabit “book” in DNA – encoding far more digital data in DNA than has ever been achieved.

Writing messages in DNA was first demonstrated in 1988, and the largest amount of data written in DNA previously was 7,920 bits. The challenge in writing more information than this has been creating long perfect sequences. The current project uses shorter sequences, each encoding 96-bit data block, along with a 19-bit address that specifies the location of the data block within the larger data set. Then redundancy reduces errors: each base only encodes a single bit (A and C are both “0”, G and T are both “one”), and each data block has several molecular copies.

DNA has several advantages for archival data storage – information density, energy efficiency, and stability. With regard to stability DNA offers readability “despite degradation in non-ideal conditions over millennia” – by which they mean 400,000 years! (See Church and Regis, in their forthcoming book on the subject.)

If we wish to intentionally use this technology for active long-term information storage (imagine some crucial message we need to convey to the future), we should probably anticipate the possibility of a discontinuity in technological knowledge and access to tools that could read the information. This raises questions of discoverability, decodability, and readability.

Ubiquity aids discoverability – if the information is everywhere it is easier to find, even stumble upon, by accident. Still, clear signals / signposts could aid discovery (neon green cockroaches anyone?). With regard to decodability, I’ll simply mention there several layers of encoding to be unraveled here: spoken human language > written language in text form > digital / binary > DNA. And presumably readability requires tools on the order of at least what we have available today, unless you can make the expression of the information obvious in some biological way.

Wonderfully exciting new stuff to conjure with from the perspective of technologies for the Long Now Library. We are also delighted to be working with Dr. George Church to provide Rosetta / PanLex data that may be written in a new “edition” of the DNA book, so check back for updates!

Solving the Pioneer Anomaly With Magnetic Tapes and Punch Cards

Posted on Friday, July 27th, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
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You may dream of freaky new physics, but sometimes freaky old physics is all you need. (New York Times)

Slava G. Turyshev, an expert on gravity at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recently proved that the tried and true theories of Einsteinian physics are as powerful as ever – and he used technology from the 01970s to do it.

In 02004, Turyshev began working on a conundrum that had confused physicists since the early 01980s: Pioneer 10 and 11, two space probes gradually making their way to the outer reaches of the solar system, were slowing down at a higher rate than had been expected. At first, scientists dismissed the observation as the inconsequential effect of propellant left over in the probes’ fuel lines. But when the phenomenon persisted well into the nineties, the lack of a good explanation became a problem. Could it be that Einstein’s theory of General Relativity was off? Were the Pioneer probes perhaps showing us that gravity works differently when you’re measuring distances of a cosmic scale?

Turyshev decided to investigate, but ran into a problem: the last time either of the Pioneers had communicated with Earth was in 2003. Without any new data to rely on, Turyshev undertook what he calls a bit of “space archaeology:”

At the time these two Pioneers were launched [in the early 1970s], data were still being stored on punch cards. But Turyshev and colleagues were able to copy digitized files from the computer of JPL navigators who have helped steer the Pioneer spacecraft since the 1970s. They also found over a dozen of boxes of magnetic tapes stored under a staircase at JPL and received files from the National Space Science Data Center at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., and worked with NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., to save some of their boxes of magnetic optical tapes. He collected more than 43 gigabytes of data, which may not seem like a lot now, but is quite a lot of data for the 1970s. He also managed to save a vintage tape machine that was about to be discarded, so he could play the magnetic tapes. (

The vintage tape machine allowed Turyshev to read the old data; with help from a software programmer, he was also able to clean up and digitize it all for future safekeeping. And after several years of analysis, Turyshev was able to show that it might not quite be time for a new theory of gravity after all. The observed effect, he argues, has to do with the specific ways in which the Pioneers were built. The heat put out by the probes’ electrical systems radiate out in one particular direction – the direction of travel. This radiation pushes up against the forward momentum of the probes, thereby slowing them down ever so slightly.

“The effect is something like when you’re driving a car and the photons from your headlights are pushing you backward. It is very subtle.” (Centauri Dreams)

These findings not only demonstrate that Einstein wasn’t wrong about gravity; they also prove another aspect of General Relativity: that light (of which heat radiation is a form, as the New York Times explains) can be thought of as a stream of tiny particles (photons), which can carry energy and momentum. This realization will help NASA engineers build more efficient probes in the future.

Turyshev and his colleagues have published their findings in a paper, which can be found here. Though Turyshev is perhaps slightly disappointed not to have discovered a new physics of gravity, his findings do teach us something valuable: that old data is by no means obsolete – and that old theories can still teach us new things.

Rosetta, A Documentary by Scott Oller

Posted on Tuesday, July 24th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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The Rosetta Project was created to begin the work of filling Long Now’s 10,000 Year Library and in 02011 student filmmaker Scott Oller offered to help tell the story of the project’s aspirations and achievements. This short documentary, Oller’s senior thesis, was shot over the course of several weeks in the Spring of 02012 and explores the contents of the Rosetta Project’s collection of linguistic data, the Internet Archive’s role in hosting and making accessible that data, and the aesthetics and functionality of the Rosetta Disk itself.

Remembering our Right to Remember

Posted on Monday, July 23rd, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
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In 01994, The Economist first launched its very own website. Before long, America Online pronounced it one of the world’s best news sites, and numerous readers depended on it for their updates on current events.

Yet 18 years later, this once valued page is nowhere to be found. (The Wayback Machine’s records only go back to the end of 1996.) Long forgotten, it died a quiet death on a buried floppy disk somewhere, while the world, and The Economist, moved on to bigger and better internet capabilities.

How sad, The Economist’s Babbage blog writes, that we’ve lost so much of this early internet content. And how dangerous, as well. The threat of a digital dark age doesn’t just lurk in the ever-increasing pace of technological innovation, and its growing waste pile of obsolete software platforms. Perhaps even more acutely, it looms also in our own lack of awareness. Amidst the sheer volume of data that we swim through on the internet these days, we simply have no room or time to think about everything we’ve lost. Babbage writes:

The explosive growth of internet services such as e-mail, music downloads, video streaming, internet television, and, above all, the web itself, with its multitude of applications, has overwhelmed the digital world’s capacity to reflect upon what has passed before.

This deluge of data and applications has drowned out our “right to remember,” the author writes. Driven toward each day’s new buffet of information and possibilities, we simply have no time to look back. It’s all we can do to swallow our losses and keep on swimming. Babbage quotes both Stewart Brand and Danny Hillis in calling attention to the consequences of such a collective loss of memory:

There has been so little time to remember, let alone record, the past for posterity. Rapid turnover of information has made total loss the norm. It has been simply a matter of delete, clean the hard-drives and prepare for tomorrow’s deluge. “Civilization is developing severe amnesia as a result,” says Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation. Danny Hillis, a pioneer of parallel computing and machine intelligence, fears the world has become stuck in a digital dark age, with few cultural artifacts from its digital past to point the way.

Babbage sees a hopeful solution in organizations and people who engage in digital preservation efforts – such as Brewster Kahle, whose Wayback Machine documents the history of web pages, and whose Internet Archive is creating a library of everything ever posted to the web. But the ultimate key to counteracting our collective amnesia, the article suggests, is the availability of open source archives: collections that not only preserve information, but also make it accessible to the public.

… without paper libraries, people would find it hard to exercise their “right to remember.” That means, for example, journalists would find it difficult to hold politicians accountable for what they had promised. Historians would have trouble holding a mirror up to a society to show its vulnerabilities as well as its strengths. As much of public information is moving from printed to digital form, it is vital that virtual libraries archive as much of these digital media as they can for future reference and accountability.

Hopefully, the public availability of information will remind us how important it is to remember – and to be, collectively, accountable to future generations.

What could take the internet down?

Posted on Thursday, July 12th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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In April 02010, Dr. David Eagleman addressed the Seminars About Long-term Thinking with a lecture called “Six Steps to Avert the Collapse of Civilization.”

Central to Dr. Eagleman’s proposal for a resilient global society was the internet. As a high-volume, distributed communication system, the net offers new ways to contain disease, back-up information, share knowledge, work around oppressive regimes, collaborate, and save energy. Together, he argued, these features make the internet one of humanity’s best inventions and one of our best bets against the things that toppled previous civilizations.

It’s not, however, a perfect system. Dr. Eagleman recently outlined some of the vulnerabilities we’ll want to patch if the internet is really going to be our civilization’s failsafe. Solar flares make an appearance; here’s a great feature on them from a recent issue of National Geographic. Read the rest at CNN.

Bringing the World’s ~ 7,000 Languages Online

Posted on Tuesday, July 3rd, 02012 by Austin Brown
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On July 9, Rosetta Project director Laura Welcher will be giving a talk in the Long Now museum on “Bringing the World’s ~ 7,000 Languages Online.” This talk is part of an ongoing series offered by SF Globalization, a San Francisco meetup group interested in software localization and internationalization.

“There are nearly 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, but the vast majority of them are contracting dramatically in use, rapidly approaching obsolescence and extinction. While computers, mobile devices and the Internet could offer an entirely new domain of language use – infusing these languages with modern vitality and vigor – there are few languages that can be used with ease in this domain today. In this talk, Dr. Laura Welcher will present the work of The Rosetta Project that she directs at The Long Now Foundation, their efforts to build resources and capacity for all human languages, and what it takes to bring these languages online.”

Find all the details and RSVP to attend on the Meetup Page.

Evernote and the 100-year data guarantee

Posted on Thursday, June 28th, 02012 by Austin Brown
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There are many many businesses that will store your data online for you, but few that actively address the problems of the digital dark age. While many people fear that incriminating or unflattering photos will live online forever, the opposite problem also lurks – your crucial or sentimentally valuable data can disappear when servers crash, products are discontinued, or companies go out of business.

Evernote is a service that saves users’ text, photos, website URLs, and other data. For anyone relying on the service to archive important information, access is vital. And for someone who’s spent years creating an ‘external brain’ with Evernote, some kind of long-term guarantee might function like a helmet, promising a bit of cushion in case of some sudden shock to the system.

Citing Long Now’s long-term focus as an inspiration, Evernote CEO Phil Libin announced at the recent Le Web London conference that the company will soon set up a protected fund and include a legally binding guaratee that users’ data will be maintained for 100 years, even if the company itself is bought or ceases to be.

It will be a very long time before anyone can determine the success of this effort, but it is an encouraging attempt at substantively grappling with the long-term.

How Toy Story 2 Narrowly Escaped Oblivion

Posted on Wednesday, May 30th, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
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Have you ever accidentally dropped something out of your pocket while the toilet is flushing? That’s R-M-*.

Those three little characters are more dangerous than they might look: they very nearly spelled the end of Woody, Buzz Lightyear, and Mr. Potato Head. R-M-* erases Linux and Unix drives, and in 01999, someone accidentally ran this command on the machine that held the files for the soon-to-be-released Toy Story 2.

In this animated video, Pixar producer Galyn Susman and former CTO Oren Jacob tell the story of how they nearly lost their movie, and finally managed to recover it:

Luckily, this story has a happy ending – but it’s a scary glimpse at how little stands between us and the digital dark age!

(via Kottke)

Rogue Archivists Fight the Digital Dark Age

Posted on Monday, April 16th, 02012 by Charlotte Hajer
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Vigilantes? Internet Archaeologists? Digital doomsday sayers?

The Archive Team has been called many things. Here at Long Now we’ve been following their work, which was recently featured by NPR’s On The Media. In a brief interview for the program, founder Jason Scott talked about some of the work they’re doing, and why it’s important.

Scott describes his group as a kind of emergency response team that comes into action whenever a social media site shuts down. We share our personal lives on these sites by uploading pictures, music, and other materials through their free services. But, Scott warns, such platforms are inherently fragile and short-lived – and what happens to our stuff when they’re taken down?

“People put their lives online, and then one day wake up and realize, it’s not there anymore. They are keeping their memories on spinning magnetic pieces of metal.”

That’s where the Archive team comes in. “We’ve been compared to firemen,” Scott says: they enter doomed sites and “try to grab what [they] can,” hoping to salvage the photos, writings, and other memories people had stored there.

An ambitious goal – but it does prompt a question: is everything we upload to the net really worth saving? Isn’t most of it a sea of insignificant snapshots and mundane memories? Scott counters that even the most trivial piece of information may harbor a nugget of historical gold:

“… the example that I give is a civil war letter to a wife from her husband who is on the front lines. It might be the most trivial thing to say, ‘hope the cows are OK, hope you’re fine,’ but there’s so much other information coded in there. There could be a watermark showing that a company that said it never worked for that side, did in fact sell paper to that side. It could be a certain kind of ink, it could be that that one front guy became a general, and this is one of the few cases of him signing his own name. I know it’s a stretch, but there are people right now, taking some of the things we download, and doing cultural analysis. This is what happened when life went online. This is what happened when people reached a larger audience than their genetic line had ever reached. What did they do, given that power? And so, even though we might objectively say, this is trivial, I wouldn’t want these read out to me, one by one, forever, everything historical that we see is because a whole line of people said, ‘let’s not throw out that box’, let’s not delete that tape, let’s not get rid of those pictures. And, I don’t want to be the guy who decided, ok, this is good, this is bad, and then 100 years later be hated.”

In other words, even the tiniest tweet could give future generations some crucial insight into the workings of 21st century culture. The Archive Team is here to save it all from being swallowed by the digital dark age, one site at a time.

Long Bets Bet – How Durable Are URLs?

Posted on Friday, March 23rd, 02012 by Austin Brown
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A major concern of the digital dark age is link rot – the eventual failure of URLs to point to the intended files. As website maintenance falters for any number of reasons the pages can cease to be accessible, even though their addresses may be listed on many other sites.

The notion that Long Bets will be around to assess wagers many years (in some cases, over a hundred) into the future struck web developer Jeremy Keith as a bit far-fetched. In the spirit of the site, therefore, he made a Prediction that the URL pointing to the Prediction he was making wouldn’t last 11 years.

He gave a talk at Webstock earlier this year called Of Time and the Network exploring our changing perception of time as a result of our changing level of interconnectedness. At 31:30 he discusses his thoughts on long-term challenges to the accessibility of URLs and dares someone to take him up on the Bet. You can read a transcription of the talk and a blog post he wrote about the Bet itself.

Another presenter at Webstock, Matt Haughey, was game. He gave a talk later in the conference about long-term thinking in the context of the web and, while consistent URLs weren’t the main focus, he touched on the problem and actually officially challenged Keith in his presentation – check it out in the video at 18:50. He was also kind enough to transcribe his talk for those who’d like to read it.

We’re very excited to have this Bet on record and it’s being closely watched by our systems administrator, designer and web developer Benjamin Keating.

Keith and Haughey have each offered stakes of $500, with the winnings going to either the Bletchly Park Trust or the Internet Archive. You can read and comment on their arguments and the detailed terms we’ll use to adjudicate the Bet at Long Bets.