Hard Drives: Our Society’s Working Memory

Hard Drives: Our Society’s Working Memory

New Scientist has published a thought-provoking article which explores the fragile nature of the materials and devices we entrust with storing our data.

Dan Gould
  • 2 february 2010

New Scientist has published a thought-provoking article which explores the fragile nature of the materials and devices we entrust with storing our data these days.

They examine the pros and cons of common materials like paper (which can easily last 100 years and beyond), and more modern formats like the hard drive.

New Scientist explains:

Even in the absence of any catastrophe, the loss of knowledge is already a problem. We are generating more information than ever before, and storing it in ever more transient media. Much of what it is being lost is hardly essential – future generations will probably manage fine without all the family photos and videos you lost when your hard drive died – but some is. In 2008, for instance, it emerged that the US had “forgotten” how to make a secret ingredient of some nuclear warheads, dubbed Fogbank. Adequate records had not been kept and all the key personnel had retired or left the agency responsible. The fiasco ended up adding $69 million to the cost of a warhead refurbishment programme.

In the event of the power going off for an extended period, humanity’s legacy will depend largely on the hard drive, the technology that functions as our society’s working memory. Everything from the latest genome scans to government and bank records to our personal information reside on hard drives, most of them found inside rooms full of servers known as data centres.

Modern drives might not fare so well, though. The storage density on hard drives is now over 200 gigabits per square inch and still climbing fast. While today’s drives have sophisticated systems for compensating for the failure of small sectors, in general the more bits of data you cram into a material, the more you lose if part of it becomes degraded or damaged. What’s more, a decay process that would leave a large-scale bit of data readable could destroy some smaller-scale bits. “The jury is still out on modern discs. We won’t know for another 20 years,” says Murrell.

(Above image: The Diamond Sutra, the oldest existing book in the world, circa AD 868.)

New Scientist: Digital doomsday: the end of knowledge”


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