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June 11, 2012 2:38 PM   Subscribe

What's the best way to store digital information in a buried time capsule for 50-100 years?

We are planning to bury a time capsule in the walls of my new reno. We'll put the usual things in - newspaper clippings, archival-print photos, trinkets and lots of dessicant. I'd also like to put in some digital content such as a movie, archived web pages, my cad designs for the house, a wikipedia image, etc. What's the best way to store this?

I've heard flash memory degrades after a few years, so SD cards and thumb drives are out. CDs and DVDs seem already past their time, but they were so widespread that maybe someone could find a reader. I thought about a hard drive, maybe even one with an operating system installed, but future people would need a contemporary motherboard too.

Thoughts? Also, is there anything else I should include?
posted by Popular Ethics to Computers & Internet (27 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Hard drives are not shelf stable; without spinning them up occasionally and verifying them, they won't last. Maybe archival CDs/DVDs?
posted by supercres at 2:43 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Archival grade CD's or DVD's should last up to 100 years.
posted by wongcorgi at 2:44 PM on June 11, 2012

CDs and DVDs may be approaching relative obsolescence, but that doesn't mean it will be impossible to retrieve data from them decades down the line. Some
manufacturers of "archival" gold DVDs claim they'll last as long as 100 years...
posted by bennett being thrown at 2:45 PM on June 11, 2012

This is a problem of our current society, digital storage allows for cheap mass storage with the trade off of needing to transfer the data onto new media on a regular basis. The strength is a decentralized multiple-source locations (LOCS - Lots of Copies Keep it Safe). the weaknesses are ongoing obsolescence of technology, degradation of solo sources/future accessibility, and a reliance on electricity to access.

The gold CDs will satisfy the medium-term length of time the media is stable, and it is foolish to think that we will not be using electricity in 100 years, but given the rate of media change I think they will fail pretty badly on accessibility.

It won't be impossible to retrieve but I suspect the relative difficulty in doing so will make it diminishing-ly likely the finders will.

But, my pessimism aside I don't think there is another financially viable option and hey it is possible that 100 years from now retrogressing technology will not be difficult, might even be able to 3-D print out an old timey CD/DVD player and upload ancient software into the shell to make it work.
posted by edgeways at 3:03 PM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

having spent a decade decoding older digital material, i suspect this is more complicated than you might initially expect. here's an insane/safe strategy i might try: binary encoded paper printouts of the files you wish to preserve, along with metadata about the origin, binary scheme for encoding, and content of the files. use helvetica font to print out the pages of 1's and 0's of the data file, and acid-free paper using archival quality toner. 100 years from now, someone will feed these pages into a fancy scanning device (or the Terminator will just look at them...) and the font will become important for an optical character recognition technique to pick up the 1's and 0's and, using the ancient metadata on the file type you've encoded, it will hopefully up-convert your photo into whatever format the Toasters are using at that point.

please do include a photo of some grafitti that says "wolverines!" or some other poke in the eye to whomever runs the planet at that point...kthxbye
posted by garfy3 at 3:08 PM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah. I'd include the player along with the media.
posted by notyou at 3:09 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I wouldn't put too much in digital format. Printed up screen shots might be better really. 50 years from now, who knows how we will store and access data. I mean, look at the 3.5 floppy (or even the larger floppy discs before that). And sure, the current version of Adobe is supposed to play all previous versions of Adobe docs, but I'm sure there will come a point when support for 50 year old previous versions stops.

One way to get around that is if you include a way to read the media in your capsule, like you might put a tape recorder in if you included some cassette tapes.
posted by NoraCharles at 3:09 PM on June 11, 2012

Even those "archival" CDs will fail over time (de-laminate, for instance) unless kept in an optimum environment. Will this time capsule be securely sealed and filled with an inert atmosphere, as well as insulated from extreme temperature variations?

This is a real issue professional archivists have been wrestling with for decades now. Many solutions for archival digital storage seem to come down to preserving the data in the highest quality media possible at the time, and re-visiting it over the years and migrating the data to whatever is the best quality now. Other solutions involve preserving not only the data but also the necessary equipment to retrieve and display it. Sort of like if you were to load everything onto an iPad and put that in the time capsule. Of course, the iPad's batteries wouldn't last that long, and probably corrode.

In short, there aren't really any reliable long-term digital archival solutions for your time horizon.
posted by Thorzdad at 3:10 PM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Today, Apple announced new MacBook Pros without optical drives. Just like the MacBook Airs lack optical drives. Just like the iMacs lacked floppy drives. I'm betting reading an optical disk will be next to impossible in a decade, let alone five. Netflix wants you to stream instead of mail DVDs, Apple wants you to buy everything through iTunes instead of the record store, the major movie production companies want you to go see it in a theater. No one wants to muck with physical (optical) media.

SD cards? I guess that's what cameras use now, but do you remember back to CF cards? Or CDs? Or, my favorite, the Sony Mavica that shot to 1.44" floppy? Just like you're somewhat difficult time reading media from a format that's a little older than a decade, those who find this will have an even harder time finding hardware to read whatever media you put in there, assuming it lasts.

Do you have an eight track player around? How about a betamax deck? Can you read LTO tapes?

Stick to analog. Unless you're going to throw a whole computer/monitor/keyboard/mouse in there, that would be funny. I'm assuming we'll all have 110 current with the outlets we have now in 100 years, but that could be wrong too.
posted by Brian Puccio at 5:08 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Microfilm is the best hope you have. See here for more.
posted by seanmpuckett at 5:37 PM on June 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

As others have said, CDs and DVDs designed for long term storage are probably your best option: they're cheap, they have a pretty good chance of surviving, and the hardware is widespread enough that reading them may not be prohibitively expensive in 50 years. It's certainly the same gamble that a number of libraries and large commercial music houses are making, for whatever that's worth. Include a few duplicates. Don't forget to convert everything to the most widespread and well documented formats you can find first.

Though it sounds a bit silly at first, garfy3's idea of printing on archival paper is also interesting. Rather than roll your own coding scheme, using a widespread and well documented barcode systems seems easier, both for you and for the person decoding it.

To get a rough idea of what's possible, optar claim they can fit 200 KB on a single sheet of laser printed paper. That's enough for a bzipped copy of the ascii text for Huck Finn, with some room for error correction. Using a less efficient but more widespread and thoroughly documented system is probably a good idea, unless you're going to include enough human-readable documentation to make it possible to rebuild the original from scratch. And, unless you're going to include enough cool stuff to make it worth someone's time to rebuild the original.

Something like uuencoded data, broken into chunks and converted to Code 128 linear barcodes could be fairly easily reconstructed by the computer savvy puzzle-hunter types of the near future using only archived wikipedia pages and some basic programming skills. Whether it will actually wind up finding its way to somebody driven to decode it is, of course, a different question.

On the other hand, you'll need a many pages to encode the same information as a single printed photo. . . so, this only makes sense for data that really needs to be digital in the first place. It's hard to think of many examples that wouldn't be better represented as analog media.

Finally, how about including only the *key* to decoding the files in your time capsule? Stick a sheet of paper in the capsule with an extremely unlikely search phrase and the ascii representation of a GPG key. (Or, better yet, multiple duplicate copies using every popular encryption scheme you can think of.) Then, your job is just to make sure the encrypted files containing the actual data survive in the world somewhere and can be found. That's not a trivial task, but it may be easier than picking eternal media.
posted by eotvos at 5:46 PM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'd go with printouts of everything and/or microfilm. Put in a picture of yourself with a PC and an iPad and call it a day.

(You could also play it like NASA and use a gold record.)
posted by SMPA at 5:48 PM on June 11, 2012

I read a science fiction story years ago where the entire lore of civilization was encoded as an irrational number (a ratio) using a public algorithm. The encoder then made a bar of platinum and inscribed a mark on it at that exact ratio, so future readers could decode it. Does that work?

posted by Johnny Wallflower at 5:56 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Encode it in audio, get a master plate made from a dubplate. Store that. As long as plastic, needles and some way of recording audio exist in the future, it should be fairly trivial to stamp a disc out and recover the data. I imagine that even if they stopped making turntables tomorrow, there are still going to be a bunch of Technics 1200s floating around.
posted by empath at 6:19 PM on June 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Considering we can still listen to Edison wax cylinders and 78 rpm records, along with acetate films, I think it is reasonable to assume that they will be able to get the data off a CD or DVD in 100 years. All of this assumes there are no zombies, meteors strikes, plagues, apes or Morlocks.
posted by wrnealis at 7:28 PM on June 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I vote for microfilm, and/or archival-quality paper, and analog, not digital, storage... ideally just microscopic reductions of the content, that are human-readable with a microscope or other magnifier.

Here's an intriguing project along those lines: The Rosetta Disk. It's an effort to preserve samples of over 1500 languages on a micro-etched disc. Note how the text samples start at ordinary size, and gradually get smaller, making it obvious how the data is stored.

Don't assume ANY particular advanced technology for people in 100 years. They may have extremely advanced tech, but they may not understand the hardware or software formats of today. Or, who knows? Advanced civilization may collapse. Micro-optical analog formats should be readable in either case.
posted by Artifice_Eternity at 7:45 PM on June 11, 2012

I vote for microfilm

Micro-etched (or even micro printed) film would be outside my budget I think. Even 35mm film (the most likely candidate) apparently decomposes on its own.

Thanks for the ideas everyone. I think I'm going to go with the archival DVD, as suggested. I know it's practically obsolete already, but I'll be banking on the existence of a future ebay to supply an old reader. Enough stuff has been stored on DVDs, that it's probably a good bet. A quick search reveals that I can still get 8" floppy drives (getting a matching interface and driver is another story).
posted by Popular Ethics at 8:11 PM on June 11, 2012

OTOH, the idea of a few dozen sheets of printed 2D barcodes sounds like fun too. It would be a good puzzle for future treasure hunters. Now to think about what ~ 2Mb file would be worth the effort (2 minutes of MP3 audio? 2 seconds of videoCD content?).

I could also print out an analog signal (NTSC video for instance), but without some form of compression I probably couldn't nearly as much data on a sheet of paper, and it would be just as hard to decode I think as a well documented digital codec. I'm open to dissent though.
posted by Popular Ethics at 8:46 PM on June 11, 2012

Archival optical disk longevity claims are broadly unprovable, but experts in digital archiving scoff at them. 100 years is forever in digital terms, roughly equivalent to wax cylinder recordings but in an age of much faster change. No archivist of initial information would risk 100 years with no format migration even on the most reliable physical medium.
posted by spitbull at 12:56 AM on June 12, 2012

Digital, not initial....
posted by spitbull at 1:00 AM on June 12, 2012

Which leaves me wondering... if I stored a hunk of data on my kindle, and removed the battery, and left a note "apply 5V here" in case people have forgotten what USB 2.0 used to be... will it power up, and will the display still work, in 100 years' time?
posted by wrm at 1:23 AM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

will it power up

Apparantly flash memory loses its stored voltages after a few years without recharge, so no, i don't think so.
posted by Popular Ethics at 7:01 AM on June 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by wuzandfuzz at 7:09 AM on June 12, 2012

Paper. Or so says Nicholson Baker.

(A poorly-sealed time capsule from 1912 was recently opened around here, with only muddy slabs of once-paper to show for it. I feel your concern, but I don't see anything digital with hundred-year longevity.)
posted by dhartung at 12:01 PM on June 12, 2012

Yep. I'd also recommend acid-free paper, somehow sealed from the elements.
posted by schmod at 1:09 PM on June 12, 2012

When planning 50 to 100 years ahead start by looking 50 to 100 years into the past. Ask yourself a few questions...

A. Who is going to find this?
Realistically, you have about a 5 % chance of it being discovered at all. If it is found, it will probably be uncovered by a repair man or demolition crew. More than likely, unless you make some VERY special arrangements through a few generations, it will be bulldozed and hauled away to a dump or opened 80 years too early and tossed in the garbage after a day of curious inspection.

B. What would they like to find?
Again, look back in time and ask what you'd like to find. With that said, take some "best guesses" at what will be valuable, what might be a collector's item in 100 years; stamps? coins? seeds? genetic material? souvenirs? that hard drive? You want to make sure your time capsule is a treasure that talks to the future and rewards the finder.

C. What will survive the journey of 100 years?
Most hard stuff will do just fine over 100 years. The electronic route is a complete toss up. Aside from the format issues, there is a bigger dilemma; will the person who uncovers the capsule have any idea what a DVD, hard drive or flash drive is? Other things to consider: will the paper items hold up, will any items degrade and ruin other things sharing space in the capsule?

D. How do you ensure a successful time capsule?
Opening or discovering a time capsule is a cool event and if the person who put it together did a good job, it can be a very rewarding occasion. 100 years from today, I am pretty sure, there will be a way to retrieve, and watch, any electronic format in your capsule IF THERE IS MOTIVATION. That said, here's an idea I have used with my time capsules- if you really want your electronic media to speak to the future, include a written statement or picture that indicates the device contains, amongst other things, a map to $100 in Sacagawea golden dollar coins. This should pique the interest of the finder and rally them to spend some time decoding the contents of your DVD/hard drive/iPod etc. despite how inconvenient or difficult it might be.

Apart from the directions to the $100 in 100 year old coins, I am not sure what you will put on your DVD. The last couple I have done included messages to my youngest relatives in the hopes they might be around. I also have copies of my journal on there. I loaded a few of my personal recipes figuring it would be fun to recreate them after 100 years, I included visuals of the ingredients and where the items came from along with the contains of my fridge and pantry. You might include a visual snap shot of your day in some vid format to give the finder an idea of who you were.

So, go get the 100 dollars worth of coins and bury them some where really good. I like to go for National Parks and cemeteries; caves and mountains are good bets too. Where ever you decide to put it, be sure to make it adventurous.

My guess is, 100 years from now, money will still talk and treasures will still be fun.

Best of luck!
posted by bkeene12 at 3:21 PM on June 13, 2012 [4 favorites]

Thanks bkeene12, that's a fantastic answer!
posted by Popular Ethics at 9:36 PM on June 13, 2012

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