IBM began its discussion of long-term digital preservation with this claim: “Today’s society is facing the Digital Dark Age.” They chose a strong metaphor to exaggerate their battle against data rot in times of relative prosperity. You can imagine what will happen to our data if the lights go out for a few years.
Nobody is currently preparing to save the core of our digital heritage beyond a global collapse of industrial infrastructure. That includes Perenno, which in early 2011 is just starting to seek contributions toward a serious plan for preparation. Many organizations are committing their resources toward sustainable preservation of digital and other archives in a world that they assume will not experience widespread catastrophe. Perenno might use standards and techniques developed by organizations such as IBM, Library of Congress, National Archives, Planets, and Sun. None of these approaches would work after an apocalypse without an oasis of 21st century technology. Governments are making no serious preparations to create such an oasis. They have no plan to rebuild the global economy after a war or natural disaster that would otherwise destroy tens of trillions of dollars worth of information. The gold at Fort Knox is a pile of trinkets compared to our intellectual heritage.
A Perenno facility should use a variety of media including: web servers, magnetic tapes, and ultra-durable optical discs, such as the Cranberry DiamonDisc or Millenniata M-Disc. It should also preserve paper-based archives, films, microfilms, and etched metal records because the digital strategy could fail. An etched-metal artifact like the Rosetta Stone pictured at left can hold 13,000 pages of text that is readable by a 650x microscope. Imagine the value to our grandchildren of the latest 13,000 pages of scientific textbooks published the year before a collapse. They might even dig economic salvation out of the ruins of a failed Perenno facility if these artifacts live up to their 10,000 year expectations. A facility on the brink of failure could distribute them as widely as possible to salvage some hope of success for their mission.
We should copy the highest priority documents multiple times onto multiple media in multiple locations. Preservation of a massive digital database and publication technology will remain the core strategy. A post-apocalyptic Perenno would sell or barter many kinds of information, from ancient Japanese forestry techniques to wind turbine design specifications. If we can generate funding, convince governments to update copyright laws, and solve a host of engineering and sociopolitical challenges, Perenno could one day be a beacon of hope — the last publishing house and university in a world gone horribly wrong.