The Legacy of a Digital Generation

Digital media includes 8" and 5.25" floppies, diskettes, CD/DVD/BluRay discs, thumb drives, XD cards, and cloud storage.What will be your legacy? Will future generations remember you, what you did, and what you valued?

Two librarians wrote “The Legacy of a Digital Generation,” a Huffington Post article that I responded to and that is the basis of today’s post. It got me thinking about the advantages of physical media (such as books, a collections of photos, or video tapes) versus digital media (like those shown above). It also got me thinking about the different perspectives people have, where the librarians’ jobs related to physical books, and mine is from being an IBM technologist. You can follow the link for their perspectives, but read on for mine.

What kind of Legacy will Digital Media Leave?

The premise of the librarians’ article is that physical media is better because information stored electronically might be inaccessible to future generations if their newer technologies no longer support the older media. While that’s a valid concern, it only means we should plan for that obsolescence.

Storage Media Evolution

In the Agricultural Age, we ate or sold what we produced, and we left very little behind. The Industrial Era left behind more durable goods but still relatively little insight into our thoughts and attitudes. The Information Age changed all of that, and we now have the ability to create, record and access mass quantities of text, images, sound, and video.

The challenge is making sure it’s recorded on a medium that can be read in the future. As we transition through different technologies, what’s important must be copied to new media: from wire recorders to vinyl records, reel-to-reel magnetic tape, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, Bluray discs, USB flash drives, etc.

For now the Internet cloud seems like the storage medium of choice, since we can rely on a service to move our content to whatever physical storage media is next but still give us online access to it.

Exponential Growth in Storage Capacity

If the amount of published information is more than doubling every two years, as IDC market analysts suggest, then more information was published in the last two years than in all of recorded history combined.

Another way to envision this phenomenal growth is illustrated in the two charts below, plotting hard disk storage capacity over time. The chart on the left shows what appears to be a roughly linear progression of capacity in storage, but the vertical axes is in logarithmic scale.

These two charts of PC storage capacity over time show the compounding effect of exponential growth.

To better appreciate the growth rate, consult the chart on the right with its fixed vertical axes. Together these charts illustrate the exponential growth effect of compounding. While the growth in storage capacity appears staggering, the important thing is less about our ability to store more stuff and more about what having random access to it lets us do.

As the amount of available data grows, the problem of managing the information becomes more difficult and can lead to lead to information overload. A technology solution involves data mining and analytics and the relatively new term, Big Data.

How Your Digital Legacy Can Live On

A few months ago I wrote an article about Recalling and Recording your Life’s Story after meeting a young lady with an interesting business creating multimedia memoirs. It made me think back on the memories my mom left for me in a hand-written book, “Grandma was Quite a Girl,” and a commemorative book about dad on the U.S.S. Minneapolis during the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Beyond a few old photos in shoe boxes, that’s all I have from them, and I wouldn’t even have that if my house caught fire or was hit by a flood or tornado.

With that physical media in mind, consider the potential value of digital media and a perpetual memorial website that makes it available to anyone versus a few photos and a grave headstone. Having an online memoir or memorial can offer so much more, including your personal account of highlights in your life and what was important to you, a history of your writings and lectures and performances, and a much larger collection of pictures and home movies. Such a website provides a place that loved ones and guests can visit to learn hear your voice and watch you in action. And they can share their thoughts and love in a social media-like experience.

Given the falling cost and rising capacity of storage, there may be no need to ever erase it. Besides, medical researchers might benefit from mining historical medical records that include mine, and future sociologists will benefit from the wealth of information stored digitally from past generations. That’s why I disagree with the two librarians and think future generations will know far more about me than any of my relatives before, and they’ll make sure it’s copied it to new media as it comes out. That’s another benefit of going digital: every copy of the information is exactly the same as the original, even if stored on different media, so you can make as many copies as you want.

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