Recently, I ran across a family photo that was taken in 1890, affixed to a cardboard backing—and was as good as the day it was processed. Will anyone be able to view cell phone pictures 127 years from now, let alone play back a CD or run today’s plug-ins in a musical project? I doubt it. Yet it’s incumbent on us to make sure the 21st century musical arts we create will survive into the 22nd century.
There are three issues: hardware, software and knowledge of both. We can still hear what was recorded on wax cylinders—if there’s a playback device. But consider what happened to the mid-’70s Viking Mars missions: The data was stored on tape, which can last for a long time. Yet only a decade later, no one had the knowledge or software to be able to read it. It’s likely 20 percent of Viking’s data is gone forever.
You’ve experienced something similar if that recording you did in 1997 by a band you thought wouldn’t amount to anything has one of its songs chosen for a feature film. The producer wants a remix, so you open the file. Several plug-ins were 32-bit only, and won’t load in your 64-bit system. Some of your plug-ins were never updated for modern operating systems because the company went out of business. There’s no way to regain the original sound.
As for cloud storage, imagine if all our culture was stored in the cloud, and an X-Class solar flare hit…end of the servers (which need to be replaced about twice a decade anyway). What’s the solution to preserving our work, considering that more data has been generated in the past couple years than in all of human history? Hard disks aren’t enough.
Technology is coming to the rescue. Sony and IBM have partnered on tape storage technology (yes, tape) that stores 330 Terabytes of data in a single cartridge, and IBM Research predicts that storage capacity will double every two years for the next decade. A new lubricant reduces friction and thus heat and wear, but also, more tape can now fit in a cartridge. This is pretty much for archival storage only, and not yet available commercially, but if nothing else, improved tape technology is technologically feasible and would add much-needed data security for cloud storage.
Another option for archival storage could last for potentially millions of years, and store hundreds of terabytes on a crystal no larger than today’s optical disc. The technology is based on using a laser to write data by altering the optical properties of fused quartz, and relies on nanostructured glass that can record data in five dimensions—three dimensions of position, as well as size and orientation.
Playback requires a laser to pulse the data, and a means to record the results of the pulsing. Although the expense of something that can write this data puts it out of reach of everything except for well-heeled corporations (or the Library of Congress), the potential for an inexpensive way to read back the data exists. Another possible advantage is reading speed. Because each laser-created dot has multiple dimensions, reading the dot provides a lot more data than simply reading a bit with optical media. Of course, if it becomes a consumer product, what would that mean to streaming services—and royalties—if we could buy a couple discs with every piece of music ever recorded up to now?
Finally, DNA—with an estimated life of thousands of years—is a candidate for data storage. A human cell nucleus a few micrometers across can store almost a gigabyte of data. When compared to semiconductors, DNA represents an incredibly dense storage medium. Unfortunately it’s not without its problems, like error correction. Possible solutions include storing multiple copies, or protecting the data with silica spheres. Furthermore, the process remains expensive, and both reading and writing are slow. But “playback” won’t becoming obsolete as long as human societies want to read and write DNA.
When any of these archival technologies become mainstream is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, you’ll still need to keep refreshing your digital data if you don’t want it to disappear. But hopefully in the not-to-distant future, the music we make will be able to survive not just for decades, but millennia.