Rupert Goodwins' Diary

Friday 04/2/2005Over in the US, auction house Christie's is having a sale of computer documentation. Not old copies of MS-DOS 2.

Friday 04/2/2005

Over in the US, auction house Christie's is having a sale of computer documentation. Not old copies of MS-DOS 2.1 manuals, though -- it'll be thirty years before they become valuable -- but the good stuff. Letters by Babbage, papers by Turing, designs by Eckhert and Mauchly, all manner of paraphernalia that can be linked in some way to the development of the digital world. None of it's cheap -- Christie's expectations start at $400 and move up to the $50,000 mark -- but you can still enjoy a lot of it gratis at the original collector's website.

IT may be the first industry that self-documents. The really early stuff hasn't been curated any better than any mid-20th century endeavour, and lots has been lost for good, but once computers started to get good enough to help design other computers -- and the art of the back-up was learned -- then historical records started to move out of the physical and into the digital, where they belong. By now, there can't be any new digital product that doesn't announce its arrival with a shower of new online information, and all aspects of its inception, design and production will be created in a massless, instantly duplicable and searchable form. How much of this stuff is properly archived, I don't know: it's a worthwhile project to find out.

Moreover, the worries about archaic storage methods leading to incomprehensible records -- who now can read an 8-inch floppy? -- should be receding. As long as the data is networked, new storage and distribution techniques will drift in and out of the network as they are born and become obsolete. The data itself -- spread around the world -- will carry on: at least, this is the hope.

I'd like to see some of the mooted offline storage ideas become reality: the best, I think, was to use an X-ray laser to etch information into durable metal disks. This would be very high density, not too difficult to read and would comfortably survive in most environments for hundreds or thousands of years. A box full of those in Earth orbit, or dumped somewhere secure like the Moon, would be quite a time capsule for those we hope come later.

Although to be honest, a decent portable half-gig backup device would do me right now. Especially if iTunes is going to give me the same sort of fright it did on Saturday. [Don't you just love the way he always comes full circle? -- Ed ]