Danny's Lab

Engineering the World

Digital Archaeology

Published on: Apr 5, 2011
Reading time: 2 minutes

Who do you think will have an easier time understanding a society? Archeologists today studying civilizations 1000 years ago, or Archeologists 1000 years from now studying us today?

When humans first started to become "humans" our greatest asset was probably our communication. It was likely started out verbal. But then we soon discovered writing. Writing in the dirt was quick and easy, but it went away quickly. We needed a way of keeping information permanent, so we discovered rock. From ink to carvings, we now had a place outside of ourselves to hold our thoughts.

It probably wasn't on our minds back then, but those carvings have proved invaluable for today's archaeologists in understanding our origins.

With the wealth of information available today and the sheer amount of digital storage, this may at first glance seem like a utopia for future historians. However, the fact that most of our society and culture today is stored on digital mediums may actually be an Achilles heal to the preservation of our history.

If you consider for a moment how digital data is stored. At the physical level, just in the past 15 years, we've gone from 5.25" floppy disks to 3.5" floppy disks to Zip drives to Jazz drives to CDROM, CD-R, CD+R, DVD, CompactFlash, USB Flash, and SD cards. That only accounts for some of the removeable media. For longer term storage, we've had RLL, MFM, SCSI, IDE, SATA and many others. While some of these media are similar to others, most are largely incompatible due to connectors, bus interfaces, etc.

Down at a physical level, the bits are encoded in various sector sizes, they're mashed with various forms of ECC (error correcting codes), and then finally organized into some sort of filesystem. Microsoft itself is responsible for FAT16, FAT32, VFAT, NTFS. But Linux, Mac, and Unixs all have many other types of filesystems designed to deal with different types of data storage problems.

This all happens before we even talk about the data itself. That image you have in your camera? Perhaps it was a Sony, in which case it was stored in a proprietary format only Sony software can understand before you typically convert it to JPG or PNG. However, Microsoft Word documents? Who really understands how to read these except for the specific version of Microsoft Office it was written with?

What's interesting here is to realize that technology, especially technological data is not set in stone. Because literally stone is something we can still easily inspect 1000 years from now.

Technology, however, shares a symbiotic relationship with the society that develops it. It always only lives in the present. And while we've come a long way from living with rocks, perhaps our literature is still written in nothing better than dirt.