Thursday, 14 October 2010

Enola Gay and digital preservation

Interesting blog post by Danny Bradbury, who made a documentary a few years ago about the cultural history of the nuclear weapons programme. One of the most interesting interviews he had was with Martin Harwit who had been director of the National Air and Space museum in Washington, DC, but was rudely ousted in 1995.

Harwit had attempted to mount an exhibition showcasing the Enola Gay, which was the B52 airplane that dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. As part of that exhibition, he tried to ask whether the bombing was justified. His approach called down a rain of fire. He was blasted for historical revisionism by the politically powerful veteran community, and the board had little opportunity but to let him go.

The spectre of the Enola Gay's public display caused a tussle before Harwit's moral inquiry even began. The exhibition was mounted because 1995 was the 50-year anniversary of the bombing, and veterans were anxious to see the plane exhibited that year.

Archivists had other ideas. They wanted the job done properly. They knew that in 500 years, when historians examined the aircraft, they might ask an array of arcane, academic questions. For example, what materials were the alloys in specific engine parts comprised of? Investigating minute details such as these and acquiring or rebuilding complex parts for complete veracity takes a great deal of time and effort. They may not have been interesting for veterans who wanted to see their bird fly one last time, but skimping on such tasks for short-term satisfaction puts the whole archival endeavour at risk.

The more I think about the quandary facing archivists preparing the Enola Gay exhibit, the more I worry about our digital existence. Increasingly, our lives are articulated digitally. We share our experiences with others online, and carry out more of our transactions in binary form. The amount of information that we create is accelerating exponentially. "Between the birth of the world and 2003, there were five exabytes of information created," said Google CEO Eric Schimdt recently. "We [now] create five exabytes every two days."

Archiving this stuff is going to be really difficult, in a way that the Enola Gay's archivists couldn't begin to imagine. For one thing, there's the physical media involved. Information may become increasingly stored in the cloud, but it must still be held on physical media, in some data centre somewhere.

Estimates for the longevity of this physical media vary, but all of them point to instability; eventually, data storage decays. It turns out that tape, which is increasingly becoming an archival medium rather than a backup one, is particularly prone to damage because of the way that robotic tape libraries work. In order to access the information that we store today centuries hence, we'll need media that stands the test of time.

1 comment:

Verity said...

As a former mediaevalist now working in IT, I'm particularly conscious of this. Both because of what we've lost, and because of what we've still got. It turns out that some manuscripts are nearly as good now as they were 1000 years ago. But I'm pretty sure that the data stored on my computer won't be around, or readable, in 1000 years, unless we make a huge effort to preserve this.