The VICE Channels

    Magnetic Tape Is Still Our Best Hope of Preserving Human History

    Written by

    Meghan Neal

    contributing editor

    Via Flickr

    The future of human history has a pretty ironic problem. While scientific and cultural information about the Earth and human civilization is being pumped out at exponential rates, we've yet to find a way to preserve today's deluge of data that works better than the Neanderthal-esque approach of carving messages into rock.

    In fact, digital information is even more ephemeral than the physical world, because of the "link rot" problem—bits and bytes are lost when ever-changing technologies render previous formats obsolete. We worry about cyberspace's disconcerting digital footprint or online permanent records. But when you're talking about hundreds, thousands, or millions of years, the shelf-life of our personal data is mere a flash in the pan. Current data storage methods don't last beyond a few decades, let alone eons, which has preservationists worried that the onslaught of information being gathered will be all for naught, and future generations or even Earth's post-human inhabitants will have no record of the history of mankind.

    To that end, scientists are working on ways to store data cheaply and reliably for the long haul. And despite some experimentation with wrapping ones and zeros in ultra-resilient materials like quartz crystal or silicon nitrate-coated tungsten, the best method for backing up and archiving the information superhighway is old-school, nearly antiquated magnetic tape.

    Yup, we're talking about that black ribbon in cassette tapes you'd wind up by sticking your pinky finger into the tape's hole to skip tracks—the stuff that would invariably get tangled into a hot mess or eaten by temperamental VCRs. Magnetic tape revolutionized sound and visual recording in the analog age before being traded in for compact discs and MP3 files. But when it comes to the massive data storage, most people consider it a superior option to modern hard drives.

    Tape is cheaper, faster, and more reliable than hard disks, and doesn't use up energy, a recent Economist article explains. From the article:

    Extracting data from tape is about four times as fast as reading from a hard disk ... The second advantage is reliability. When a tape snaps, it can be spliced back together. The loss is rarely more than a few hundred megabytes—a bagatelle in information-technology circles. When a terabyte hard disk fails, by contrast, all the data on it may be lost … The third benefit of tapes is that they do not need power to preserve data held on them….It is cheaper than disks (a gigabyte of disk storage costs 10 cents, versus 4 cents for tape), and lasts longer. Tapes can still be read reliably after three decades, against five years for disks.

    The downside of magnetic storage is its slower to access, since a robotic archivist has to comb through the tape libraries to search for the data being retrieved (see: pinky finger wind-up). This, among other reasons, makes magnetic storage the method of choice for "cold" data—information that sits unused in server farms for years, versus "hot" data that's accessed immediately and often. That's best stored in flash memory or disks.

    To handle the overwhelming, rapidly increasing amount of data being created—expected to soon grow to zetabytes or sizes we don’t have words for yet—scientists are working to improve magnetic tape storage. Researchers at Fuji Film in Japan and IBM in Zurch are developing tapes that can store 100 terabytes of compressed data per cartridge—about 100 million books' worth of information—and hope to have a workable prototype of the ultra-dense tape drives next year.

    Even so, that won't even come close to being enough space to store humanity's virtual record, be it inane Facebook posts or crucial knowledge about the environment and medicine that could help our far-off decedents avoid a grim dystopian future—or hell, even serve as a guide for post-apocalyptic peoples starting over from scratch.

    What's more, storage space is only part of the problem; there's also the issue that the technology to read digital data is outdated at a rapid clip—like the photographs of grandfather's life memories currently trapped in tiny slide projector negatives. Sure, you could include a guide to how to use the old-school technology to break the code and read the data, but what if the future humans or whoever don't speak any of our present-day languages?

    The question of how to preserve human history for millions of years is nothing new; it even dates back to before the digital-analog switchover. You've maybe heard of Gold Record, the time capsule Carl Sagan sent out into outer space on the Voyager probe in 1977, carrying phonograph records of sounds and images portraying civilization. Or more to date, the KEO space capsule, an "archeological bird of the future" that's planned to be launched into orbit next year with the hopes of returning to Earth in 50,000 years. In it are pictures from various world cultures, crowdsourced personal messages, a diamond containing a drop of human blood, the DNA of the human genome, and samples of air, the ocean, and earth.

    Getting back to long-term data storage, Motherboard's Ben Richmond recently reported on the Human Document Project, which is experimenting with preserving culture via QR codes etched into tungsten, a very sharp and resilient metal, coated in silicon nitride. In a similar vein, Japanese researchers developed a prototype of a system that uses quartz crystal that they claim can preserve data for 300 million years.

    To a certain extent, the whole thing smacks of a narcissistic urge to have our memories—if not our bodies—live on in perpetuity. But it's also refreshing to know that human beings, who have been decidedly reactive rather than proactive throughout history, are taking the idea of long-term future planning seriously.