A Cartoon about Long-term Storage of Digital Data

Genealogists, archivists, and historians are always concerned about preserving information, pictures, videos, and more. Unlike paper or microfilm, storing data digitally can preserve information for centuries if the data is properly preserved and is copied to new, more modern media and file formats every few years.

The geek cartoon, xkcd, has an interesting viewpoint on long-term digital storage at http://xkcd.com/1683.

My thanks to newsletter reader Russell Houlton for telling me about the cartoon.


And as if to prove their point, try hovering your mouse over both this copy of the cartoon, and then the original copy.

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Not precisely true. Cosmic rays actually can change stored bits and do at a very slow rate, sort of like mutations in X-DNA. If a critical bit is flipped, the file could be corrupted and made unreadable. The paranoid person should keep 3 copies of every file, so that if the same byte differs, the matching two can be assumed to be correct.

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    I believe that only applies to certain types of storage. I know that was true for RAM memory, possibly Flash/SSD as well, I doubt if it applies to magnetic hard drives. Most file storage systems include a CRC that can detect if a file has been corrupted. So rather than compare files, you just ignore the corrupted one.


Should we mention the data that’s been preserved for thousands of years via carved writing/pictures in stone, clay and caves?


The joke being made is about — forgive me, but it’s the actual term — shitpics. If you’re unfamiliar, they’re basically images and memes that have been processed through too many editing apps too many times. You can read about the phenomenon at https://theawl.com/the-triumphant-rise-of-the-shitpic-e25d8e5af9bc


The bits may still be there but be unreadable because the program has changed and can’t read it anymore. See Word, Excel, Access files as an example. You must have the right version of the right software to read the information. How many people will import everything into new software to create new versions that will go on longer? Having to do that with everything would take forever.

Printed word is always readable, altho it may be difficult due to handwriting. However printed is readable. Best to have a printed versions of a book or pictures that you want preserved also.


Both are good and needed. The properly cared for part involves the copying to new storage formats and as I mentioned needing to save in new software formats. How many people will really take the time and expense to do this yearly? How many of our descendants will do this for our stuff? Yes paper can be destroyed but if it survives, it is readable.

I found a forgotten box of paper records that my grandfather (who died in 1960s) had saved that belonged to his grandfather. Guess what. I can still read all the paper! If it had been digitized it wouldn’t be readable now because too much time would have passed. I do digitize what I consider the most important but also keep the paper, either with me or at a local historical society.

The recording of my grandfather’s voice (which got lost along the way) was on a reel to reel tape. Very few of those left. I did digitize cassette tape recordings of my grandmother and hope that they will be still be good in the future.


    Yes, that’s one big concern of digital. Those kinds of incidental discoveries (like finding things in Grandma’s trunk) it likely to be things of the past. What will be preserved is the things we actively preserve by copying.

    But this whole cloud thing throws another kink into the system. We’re rapidly moving away from storage media and using the cloud instead. One thing I have learned is to stick with common and widely used standards – they survive. Open reel tape machines might not be common now, but they are findable. But if we’re no longer using storage media, then no standard will be in common use – where does that leave us?


The key here is “if properly cared for.” Unfortunately, few cultural heritage institutions have the resources have the resources (staff, equipment, or money) to routinely check and migrate data to ensure proper care and usability over the long-term. Too many people assume that digitization is the best way to preserve information, but they don’t think about the long-term cost of preservation of the data.


Oh No! Finally that “big stick” of It’s Going On Your Permanent Record from grade school is actually true! We’re doomed!


Great article


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