Will future generations be able to read our e-papers and use our e-data?

By | September 1, 2016

ape_planet_PK

In the attic of my grandmother's house there is a box with my old personal stuff. Inside there is a smaller box with a bunch of 3.5 floppy disks. One of them has a fading handwritten label "Bachelor thesis - data".

To get to the data I could use the 3.5 drive in a 90's minitower resting in my wife's parents' cellar. The only problem is that it won't boot. Even if I fix that, will the 3.5 disk still be readable? Further, if my children, 20 years into the future, wanted to have a look at the data, will they even know what a minitower is? For them the 3.5 floppy disk will perhaps be as impenetrable as the Egyptian hieroglyphs were before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone.

I guess that almost all science that has ever been stored on floppy disks, magnetic tapes, or punched cards, is now practically inaccessible.

In this context, Jeremy Fox asks:

… in what concrete ways do you feel worse off because you can’t access the data that past ecologists stored in a now-unreadable format on 5.25″ inch floppies? Do you ever have occasion to curse their lack of foresight?

Well, I don’t feel worse off, and I don’t curse past ecologists for using floppies. I am ok today because most of the 20th century’s science was actually printed, and hard copies have one advantage over binary data: they are readable without any special device – humans can access them directly. I can still get Taylor & Woiwod’s 1982 estimates of mean-variance scaling of insect populations from their grand table printed over several pages of Journal of Animal Ecology.

Today we consider electronic data to be somehow more secure and accessible than in the floppy nineties. We are so confident about the solidity of the cloud that we have been moving the entire scientific infrastructure to it. Countless papers are published, heaps of data are deposited online, new journals emerge, and it all exists solely as electromagnetic bits that degrade over time, or on flash drives that degrade over writing cycles. And in order to read the stuff, we always need a rather sophisticated device: a personal computer with up-to-date software.

But keeping software up-to-date can be a problem when hardware ages. Operating systems change, and there is no guarantee that our current hardware will be operable in 50 years. Example: Proprietary operating systems (such as MS Windows) tend to give up on old hardware support and do not enable downgrading to older versions. Further, file formats evolve. There was no .xlsx when I was a kid, now everybody uses it and nobody cares about .dbf. Although this does not seem as an issue now (we can still open .dbf with Excel and other programs), I can imagine that Excel2050 will drop the .dbf support because it will be of little commercial value, or just to make things simpler.

In the past, libraries received hard copies of the journals that they subscribed to, creating a globally distributed hard-copy backup of scientific knowledge, with no restriction on future use. The stuff was accessible even when the subscription ended. In contrast, the current trend is towards online access only; libraries pay for temporary access to remote repositories on publisher’s servers. When an institution can no longer afford access to Elsevier’s journals, everything is all of a sudden inaccessible.

It bothers me that nobody seems to care about what happens, in the long run, to all the electronic science produced today. Will my grandchildren be able to open the data that have been uploaded to the clouds? Will the clouds still be there? Will people have access to Wiley's online library or to JSTOR? Will these companies still exist? Will future generations be able to read .pdf or .xlsx formats? Will they, in a hypothetical post-nuclear (post-global warming, post-biodiversity loss) future have computers at all? And how about grandchildren of our grandchildren?

Empires fall, climate changes, catastrophes happen. That is the historical experience. Americans are just about to vote if they give access to their nuclear arsenal to a maniac. And the saying goes: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. Sometimes I even imagine a planet-of-the-apes future where a laptop is found, covered with moss, mysterious, with whole libraries stored (but probably corrupted and fragmented) on a tiny little object inside, invisible and inaccessible.

Maybe I am exaggerating this. Jeremy Fox writes:

The “needs” and “wants” of long-distant future people aren’t well-defined today. What they “need”, and “want”, and what they do to meet those needs and wants, will depend on what we do today – but in complex and unpredictable ways. At the timescales you’re talking about, there’s nothing but Rosetta Stones. Nothing but sheer luck.

Perhaps. We can’t foresee the distant future. But I still believe that we can make some relatively small and easy precautionary steps, which can (with a bit of luck) help our grandchildren to access our science.

I suggest:

  1. To scientists: Use non-proprietary and simple text-based data formats (e.g. .csv) to deposit data. Use simple text-based file formats for writing (e.g. Markdown, LaTeX, html). Use free and open-source operating systems (e.g. GNU/Linux) and software (e.g. R).
  2. To journals, publishers, editors: Think twice before going 100% online. If that can’t be prevented, maybe print everything once a year annually in small numbers of prints, and send that as hard copies to certain libraries anyway.
  3. To funding agencies and governments: You often require that research funded with your money is open-access. How about adding another requirement: The research results should also be properly archived in some durable form. Somewhere.
  4. To libraries: I see two roles of a library – it enables access to literature, and it archives. The latter role can be fostered, and libraries can play an active role in archiving electronic literature that they subscribe to.
  5. To engineers: Please invent a cheap technology for storage of large amounts of data that does not degrade over time.
  6. To historians (and to Peter Turchin): Some ancient literature has still made it to the present. Please investigate why some of it survived, and why some of it hasn’t. Was it nothing but sheer luck? There can be some fundamental patterns and lessons back there.
  7. To artists: Please carve the Unified Neutral Theory of Biodiversity, Metabolic Theory of Ecology and Maximum Entropy Theory of Ecology to granite. Mount Rushmore could be a good location.
  8. To museums: Collect present-day computers.
  9. How about this, but for scientific data and literature?

Motivation for this post came from an exchange under a post by Brian McGill on Dynamic Ecology.

3 thoughts on “Will future generations be able to read our e-papers and use our e-data?

  1. Varshavskiy Alexander

    Thanks! I like when people think about the future.
    I agree with you and usually try to have my scientific work in .csv and .rmd on CDs and DVDs. The most important things are printed. And of course good old field journals are safekeeped. Sometimes they are very helpful in current work.

    Reply
  2. definition of s thesis

    An excellent instruction essay engages the audience till the conclusion, the greatest key for
    publishing training essay is the fact that one should logically organized the recommendations what
    exactly there's no frustration left for the reader while in the training dissertation. Consequently,
    we will provide you with some essential tips for writing instruction documents.
    Paul's cathedral designed Outdated Unhappinessis home|the home
    of Old Agony was designed by Christopher Wren, who had been the seventeenth-century builder A Lear essay range from nearly every form of dissertation writing task.
    You will be requested to merely identify King
    Lear, the play. Alternately, you might be asked make a review of it or to research the play.
    You might be asked by concentrating on any certain issues within the play to make a
    critical King Lear dissertation. These kinds
    of responsibilities could be boring. Nonetheless,
    whenever you experience writing these essays that are unique,
    you will began to know how you can master this artwork.
    Paul's cathedral|Christopher Wren, who had been the seventeenth-century builder A five composition has three detail lines,
    the preliminary paragraph, some significant measures like,
    and a realization. The initial sentence should have a statement, with the formulation one principal idea + one viewpoint + three details.
    The three lines have to be based on the facts
    while in the initial passage. The story is closed by the conclusion, it lets
    you know exactly what the whole essay was about. Paul's cathedral created Outdated Agonyis house|the household of Aged Unhappiness was
    created by Christopher Wren, who had been the seventeenth-century designer A summary of reasons for the commitment
    to the subject may help spring from your channels good ideas that might not have already been correctly deemed in times past.
    It'll support give a format for private development and change.
    Paul's cathedral|Wren, who had been the seventeenth-century
    builder There is an optimistic finish also a good idea.
    You might summarize your fights while in the finishing paragraph, attracting together the posts
    of an argument but also telling the viewer that the dissertation (ideally) has proved the points you attempted
    to create. Your final part for 1000-word essay would be 50-100 words in length.
    Paul's cathedral created the home of Old Misery|Wren, who had been Produce anything beneficial in a way that appeals and penetrates into minds, heads
    and souls. People will cherish you because of it!
    Paul's cathedral created the residence of Old Misery|Christopher Wren, who was simply A conclusion should draw on an article together.
    Paul's cathedral|Wren, who was the seventeenth century designer A brief and obvious format will
    make your dissertation easyto create. Developing a sturdy
    information emphasis delivering your suggestions obviously, and providing a great deal of help produce the essay
    better to comprehend. The 5-sentence composition we are
    going to discuss helps you to arrange your tips right into a structure.
    Your reader's fascination and awareness, and therefore your levels by organising the ideas of the report into this structure you will boost your article
    structure. Paul's cathedral|Wren, who had been the seventeenth-century
    designer A firm accomplishing higher-risk careers will be needing a supplementary
    concentrate on gear, staff teaching, safety, responsibility, and protection concerns.

    Reply
  3. Susannah

    Of Paul's cathedral designed Old Miseryis
    property|the property of Aged Agony was created by Wren, who was simply the seventeenth-century builder An approach that is better?
    Paul's cathedral|Wren, who was simply the seventeenth century designer A change with flying exchange rates data shows what goes on when government spending is elevated (or
    fees are lowered). An growth with floating exchange rates displays what goes on once the
    way to obtain cash is elevated. Paul's cathedral designed Old Unhappinessis property|the residence of Old Agony was designed by Christopher Wren, who was simply the seventeenth-century builder
    A dress Code can be essential in low- workplace conditions, such as for example in plants, for keeping employees safe.

    For instance, in the event the employees work around machinery that the wrap could easily get
    found in, scarves are not ideal. The exact same will additionally apply to diamond,
    belts, connections, and long hair. Consequently, a dress-code permits them to
    check respectable if visitors or customers come on website
    and also maintains personnel safe from harm. This dress-code is grocery
    stores, such as fast food, or also extremely beneficial for
    other places of support. It shows an atmosphere of cleanliness once you realize their
    ideal standard is being worn by the team, instead of if they were wearing their particular clothing.

    Paul's cathedral|Wren, who had been the seventeenth-century
    architect There is an end that is positive also recommended.
    You may summarize your fights in the finishing paragraph, pulling together
    the strings of a quarrel but additionally reminding the reader that the essay (ideally) has proven the items you set out to
    create. A final part to get 1000-term article will be 50-100
    words in-length. Paul's cathedral created the residence
    of Old Unhappiness|Christopher Wren, who was simply A simple dissertation format should
    be broken-in an introduction, 3 lines, and
    a summary. The dissertation outline's Introduction should focus on the information that the audience will have to recognize your thesis statement.
    Paul's cathedral created the residence of Aged Unhappiness|Christopher
    Wren, who had been Why you would like to take up legislation,
    a good personal record must obviously describe. This is the reason entrance documents that are exceptional usually concentrate on the customeris enthusiasm in its conversation. Become
    a storyteller and go the reader during your private encounters
    which persuaded one to desire to become a lawyer. Paul's cathedral|Wren, who was simply the seventeenth
    century architect A brief history paper isn't always the same
    as an argumentative article, although it may be.
    It really depends upon the way your subject is approached by you.

    However, it will help you get, study that proposed article started!
    Paul's cathedral|Wren, who had been the seventeenth century designer An enjoyable
    extra credit undertaking for science school is always to have a research
    skilled is interviewed by your pupils also to publish a
    media story on them. The technology professional
    can be quite a health care provider, a research technician, a
    science teacher or a biologist in the geographic area.
    When the pupil provides a speech in type concerning the person they interviewed, you'll be
    able to provide extra factors.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *