Librarians are facing an impossible situation simply collecting the vast amount of creative output of a world in which everyone is a potential author and a potential editor. But next to simply gathering these far-flown leaves, the challenge of dealing with ever more rapid generational change between storage media looks to archivists the way the massively extincting asteroid must have looked to the dinosaurs.
Last Thursday, I was sitting at my server two hours after closing time archiving at a glacier pace three little 5Gb databases and I had a couple of thoughts on archiving I wanted to share.
At one time I predicted to a friend that all of the data in the universe would one day be compressed in such a way that it could be stored on the nucleus of a single hydrogen atom. I always like to lay a foundation by pushing everything to its obvious limits: until we have ready access to strings and other dimensions, this represents the smallest conceivable storage medium and the largest conceivable collection of data.
Fortunately, there are a lot of hydrogen nuclei in the universe, because at some point we will want to store not just all of the information that exists in the universe (and backups to keep up with recent changes, and archives to freeze a moment of knowledge in time for historical research purposes), but all of the information that could be true in the universe, and then all of the information that could be true in any conceivable universe. Which would we run out of first--universes or hydrogen nuclei?
The answer is that we would very quickly find ourselves trying to figure out how to make more hydrogen nuclei.
When we breech the divide between the scale of the atomic and the scale of strings--when we can directly and reliably manipulate strings--the amount of information about this universe will explode and there will be a geometric increase in our ability to conceive of what might exist elsewhere. We would have to access the strings as a storage medium. But soon we would despair of finding enough string to write all that data on.
And then, we would find a way to access other dimensions and other universes and all hope would be lost--we could not grasp what we can reach, we could not store what we grasp, and perhaps the professional storer of stuff would find himself as out of date as the blind poet singing of sirens and seamen sailing the wine-dark sea long ago, searching for home.
The librarians and archivists are noble to continue a proud heritage. They remember the burning library at
Alexandria and wish they could see just a fragment of what it contained, written in ram's
blood on lambskin or paint on papyrus. They wish they could read the forgotten names of forgotten gods, despondent in their care-worn corner of heaven, unworshiped, starving for lack of tribute and sacrifice. The forgotten
heroes dead in forgotten wars beg for mead at the back door of Valhalla. The scrolls of Alexandria offer ready wisdom and solutions we could take off the shelf to make peace among warring factions, to capture the energy in a crystal, to transport ourselves in flaming sky chariots. You get thepicture.
I don't live in Alexandria, but I've had my share of burning libraries. My hard disk is likely to die soon--I've lost whole generations of data, deathless prose and worthless poetry, books I've written in private languages and programs I've devised to run on chips that haven't been built in years. It's a painful thing to lose a hard disk.
I have a pile of dead disks I keep on the shelf with the ashes of my dear departed schnauzer. I just can't throw
them away. I've asked my wife to dump my corpse in the woods when I die, for the wild beasts to eat. But if she has the urge to bury something, she could fill my coffin with hard disks and schnauzer ash.
It's hard to lose those books, poems, and paintings. But they're fetishes. If they had a value beyond curiosity, they will rise again. Someone else will write or paint something very similar and probably better.
To understand why I say that mourning the loss of a snapshot of my creative output is a fetish, imagine for a moment storing away an entire mountainside of heather--mowing it, freeze-drying it, finding a facility where it could be put without crushing it. Every cell in the heather is packed with information. Every cell as unique as a snowflake landing on Antarctica and infinitely more complex. How could we allow all that information to die, to turn to dust and blow away? We do. We can't appreciate individual snowflakes unless there is a tiny sprinkle of huge flakes landing close by on a cold, dark surface that shows off while preserving its radiant beauty. Rather than appreciate the bounty of beauty in a snowstorm, we employ huge plows to push the snow away away and compact it into banks and clods that weigh tons; dump trucks take it to the river and dump it on the ice so the thaw will take it away in the spring. At my university, they used to pile the snow up between one of the women's dorms and the railroad tracks. On the first really warm days of spring, the women would put on bikinis and lie on blankets beside the huge banks of snow. The train engineers would let their diesels idle as the freight trains crept by.