In the Information Age, data reigns supreme. We are constantly collecting and generating data of all kinds, from emails to photos to documents. But one question that doesn't get enough attention is how we can store this data for long periods of time. Is it possible for our data to outlive us?
How do you store data for 100 years? The key factor in keeping any information around for long periods of time is redundancy - keeping multiple copies in multiple locations. While some cloud storage providers offer multiple backups, nothing compares to the redundancy achieved with blockchain technology.
In this blog post, we will explore some solutions for storing data for the long haul.
A brief history of data preservation
For most of human existence, oral tradition was used to pass on information. Even after early writing surfaces like papyrus and velum were invented, these materials were rare and very expensive. So oral tradition and storytelling remained the main form of passing on human knowledge for millennia.
There are still tribes around the world who pass on their stories and traditions through this method. It seems odd to us who live with modern technology, but gifted storytellers have remarkable capacity to remember. They can memorize and recall vast quantities of information, and memorize new chunks of information quickly.
When writing technology became more affordable, not everyone welcomed the change. Socrates worried how writing might diminish our memories:
“It will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.” (as written by Plato in the Phaedrus 274b-277a)
Indeed, this new technology required more work of the hand than work of the mind. Passing on information required copying it from one scroll to another by hand. This sounds arduous - and it was. Many scribes and monks simply spent their whole day copying one scroll to another, and if they found any mistakes in the copy they would throw out the whole thing!
The invention of the printing press
Gutenburg's invention of the printing press in 1440 AD is the first explosion of information upon the world. It allowed tracts and books to be published at speeds never dreamed of before.
The printing press led to the invention of information dissemination such as newspapers and tracts, and the mass adoption of libraries around the world.
The Key to the Preservation of Information: Redundancy
Libraries have always been about more than just collecting and storing books. They are about preserving the information contained within those books, and making sure that it is available to future generations. This is why librarians have always placed a high value on redundancy.
The main idea is safety in numbers. If you have multiple copies of something, then even if one copy is lost or damaged, you will still have others that can take its place. This is why libraries have always strived to maintain relationships with other libraries so that they can borrow and lend items as needed.
However, with the digital age, libraries themselves are coming to be seen as redundant.
Due to a steady decline in physical library use of about 3% per year, and increasing expense of buildings and staff, it is not uncommon for a library to be closed by its parent organization and collections to be turned over to another private organization. As a retired librarian observed:
Today many libraries serve mostly as information access points with few books. They're basically an empty building that serves as a coffee shop and study hall and computer lab.
Larger libraries were once a major resource for lesser libraries across America. They can no longer play that role. Universities have become dependent on large, external organizations, often publishing conglomerates, to maintain collections of documents in paper or electronic form. We have returned to the Library of Alexandria model where the human record is in the hands of a few - the redundancy model has been lost.
The development of the internet and electronic storage has made it easier than ever to store information, but this doesn't necessarily mean we are doing that much better of a job of keeping it or organizing it.
The options to store our data are seemingly endless. One option is to use physical media like USB drives or external hard drives. But these can be susceptible to damage from heat, humidity, or other environmental factors. They can also become corrupted over time due to degradation of the materials.
Another option is to use cloud storage services like Dropbox or Google Drive. These services are convenient and allow you to access your data from anywhere. However, they can be vulnerable to hacking and other security threats - and, of course, are subject to monthly subscription fees. They will last as long as someone is around to pay them on time for the next 100 years.
With all of these current options, the best method for short-to-medium term data storage is a combination of these methods so that there is a built-in redundancy to your archives.
However, this doesn't answer the actual question we've been trying to address: How do you store your data for 100 years?
Blockchains: New Kid on the Block
Blockchain is still a relatively new technology. Most people have heard of it in the context of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or Ethereum.
When these technologies came on the scene many people speculated about them being great for data storage for long periods of time because they are immutable (unchanging) and operate off a decentralized network (thousands of people keeping records of the data all over the world - talk about redundancy!).
With the immutable and redundant nature of blockchain technology, they seem perfect for storing data for long periods of time.
Although Bitcoin or Ethereum do store some data it is extremely expensive because they are designed to keep records of financial transactions that only require a tiny blip of data. Bitcoin and Ethereum weren't built to store your personal photos and videos. After a dozen years in operation, the entire Bitcoin blockchain is just over 500 GB - a fraction of the 2 TB on new personal computers.
As people saw blockchain's benefits of immutability and decentralization, several projects popped up to tackle the problem of using blockchain as a method to store large quantities of data at low costs.
Some of the more successful projects in the blockchain storage space have been Arweave, Filecoin, and Storj.
Filecoin and Storj operate much like a Google cloud or AWS. They can store your files on a blockchain but you will have to pay monthly to keep the service going, which is a problem when looking at storing data for 100 years. They give you the benefit of decentralization of your data at a fairly low cost, but will have a difficult time competing with other cloud providers on price.
Arweave has taken a different tact. They offer permanent storage without a subscription. For a one-time fee, Arweave offers a minimum of 200 years of storage. This insures that people never lose their data throughout their lifetime and beyond.
This breakthrough of permanent storage was made possible because of an economic model that puts part of the one-time payment into an endowment that gets paid out to the decentralized network over periods of time to keep it profitable. Learn more
Arweave launched in 2018 and since that time many applications have been developed that allow people to use the Arweave protocol. One of these applications is ArDrive, a Dropbox-like app for uploading, downloading, and organizing all of your files permanently on the Arweave network.
Check out ArDrive to see how you can get your files onto Arweave for permanent storage!
Do you have any other tips for storing data for long periods of time? Share them in the comments!