This story begins in darkness—darkness both literal and metaphorical. On a dripping wet day in 1952, an archaeologist stood in a small dank corridor deep inside a pyramid known as Temple of the Inscriptions, in the old Maya city of Palenque. In the shadows ahead, a massive triangular stone door blocked his way. For four field seasons, Alberto Ruz Lhuillier and his Maya crew had cleared tons of rubble and fill from steep steps leading down inside the pyramid. The archaeologist had no idea where the steps would take them, only a persistent thought that it could be somewhere important.
The crew struggled another two days with the door, finally shifting it enough for a man to squeeze sideways past. As Ruz moved beyond it, he shone a flashlight into the void. “It was a moment,” he later wrote, “of indescribable emotion.” Read more.
Photo: Temple of the Inscriptions, Palenque by tato grasso
I was just at Costco this weekend, wheeling one of those immense, T-Rex shopping carts past the ever-so shiny electronics section, when my eye fell on a row of flash drives. I currently back up all my research and stories on a battered 8 Gigabyte Kingston flash drive that I bought in Cuzco last summer and that I strongly suspect is a knockoff. But Costco’s new line of drives, the LaCies , are 32 GB and look like house keys. I immediately wanted one.
Now you might reasonably think that a brand-new flash drive would win hand’s down every time as a back-up system when pitted against, let’s say, a 5000-year-old Sumerian clay tablet. But you’d be very, very wrong. According to a fascinating study I recently came across by Paul Conway, who teaches in the School of Information at University of Michigan, there is one critical way in which the Sumerian clay tablet, the world’s earliest data storage system, beats the hell out of the flash drive jingling on your key chain. Longevity.
Here’s Conway’s main point. Someone who knows how to read Sumeria’s cuneiform script (which gets its name from the Latin word cuneus, meaning “wedge”–an apt description of the little wedge-shaped marks that Sumerian scribes made with their styluses in moist clay) can still read the message on a clay tablet 5000 years later. Now what about a LaCie flash drive? All the computers we use to read it today will be obsolete in 20 years, and we will have no way of accessing what’s on it. It might as well be a big lump of metal. You scoff? Just think about the stacks of floppy disks that littered our desks back in the 1980s.
Conway calls this “our central dilemma”: the capacity for storing information is soaring exponentially just as the longevity of storage media is plummeting. In other words, the more ancient the storage system, the longer it tends to live. A 4500-year-old Egyptian papyrus can still be read, so can the Dead Sea Scrolls. But a book published in 1851 on acidic paper only has an average life expectancy of 100 years. And the pace of obsolence has greatly accelerated over the past 40 years: if I handed you a computer punch card or a magnetic tape could you read it?
I am not Luddite. I love new technology (bring on the iPad!), but it’s clear to me that Apple, Microsoft and Google don’t have all the answers. Maybe the guys in Silicon Valley and Redmond, Washington ought to give a little more thought to cuneiform tablets and a little less to flash-in-the-pan data.