Is the digital age threatening the history of our society?

The culture shift of paper books to e-books is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s not just books, but our entire collective record-keeping mentality. So why do I say our society’s history may be in danger?

Back up, back up, back up

Odds are you’re reading this on a personal computer. Take a moment to stop and think about the last time you had a hard drive crash, your OS got corrupted, or something else happened to cause you to lose your data.

Think of the last time you went somewhere or called somewhere only to get “Our systems are down and we can’t help you right now, try again tomorrow.”

Now think of that taken to a much larger scale. What would happen if, by some epic disaster (we’ve had a few of those recently, right?) data centers and/or infrastructure were destroyed. Those places that safeguard finances, medical records, whatever digital data you can think of. Gone in moments.

In 2007, Google built two new data centers at a cost of $600 million. That’s $300 million a piece for strictly capital investment (construction, infrastructure, computers, etc.). In that same year Microsoft spent $500 million to build a 550,000 square foot data center in Northlake, IL.

This is money spent simply on physical structure alone, no doubt to disaster-proof the buildings and the technology. However, there’s a mathematical certainty — disaster will happen, it’s simply a matter of when.

The Next Generation

Books — more specifically the printed word — is the prime record-keeping system of a society. Books tell stories and document fact and theory, and that’s how information is passed down to the next generation. But what happens when that system gets replaced by a fragile digital system?

What happens when the inevitable does occur? Who will have records of our generation 50 years from now? 100 years from now? Do you think a few dozen hard drives sitting in a data center, which get found a dozen years or so after some completely unplanned-for calamity are really going to be able to pass along any information about us?

In 1999, archaeologists discovered a stone tablet that dated to 900 BC, making it just over 2900 years old now. A few weeks ago, a friend brought me her laptop that wouldn’t boot up. It had a bad hard drive. Her daughter’s birthday pictures were on there. No backups. They’re gone forever now.

Am I on to something here, or simply being hyper-paranoid? Your thoughts?