Monday, August 10, 2009

The end of knowledge

Of all the abilities that a man possesses, nothing is more important than the ability to transfer knowledge from a generation to the next. Human's life-span in the early days must have been somewhere between 20 -40 years old. Without the ability to transfer knowledge to our next generation, there would be very little progress in the development of our civilisation.

Through language, we transfer our knowledge in the form of story-telling. This is the earliest method that we use to transfer knowledge. But we all know that this is not a very efficient one because stories that are passed on from generation to generation are very susceptible to errors. After a few generations, the border between facts and fiction blurred, real knowledge became fairy tales.

Then, we developed writing and books. This was an important milestone. Information and knowledge that are contained within books or other form of earlier writings (whether it's on the rocks or tree skins) survived for many generations. Information was passed on accurately, withstood the harshest weather and test of time. Even now, we can still see discoveries of caves with ancient writings that are more than 3000 years old.

About a century ago, camera allowed us to store information and knowledge in the form of a picture. And more recently, the development of optical devices like CD, DVD and magnetic storage devices like MRAM, our thumbdrives and HDDs have revolutionise the way we keep information and thus our ability to transfer knowledge.

Our photos, 1000s of them, are in our camera, memory cards, flickr or thumbdrive and some in our portable HDDs; Our diaries, are on the internet - blogs, homepages, etc - which are stored in the server's HDDs somewhere in the world; Our contacts and addresses and to-do-list are on Excel spreadsheets, notepad, or some other form of electronic application stored in our thumbdrive which we carry with us all the time; Our books are in pdf format, stored in our computers; Our birth certificates and other important documents are scanned into tiff format and stored in HDDs or other magnetic storage devices; Libraries all over the world are turning into an electronic one, e.g. storing older books (that are already crumbling) in the formed of scanned digital copy.

I'm sorry I've written a rather long introduction, but yes, until here, it's only the introduction. Because the important point I want to make is this - are the methods of information/knowledge storage improving? Are CDs, DVDs and e-books better than the plain old paper books? The advantages of digital data storage are obvious. They retain information that doesn't fade with time, e.g. a typical paper book printed in 1990 would probably by now have a few pages that are fading and becoming brittle, but ebook doesn't suffer from this; Digital data are easily transferred from a point to another; They are easily managed because they are composed of a series of 1s and 0s; Their capacity are huge, e.g. a few DVDs the thickness of a regular book could probably fit in all the information contained in a typical school library. It would seem that our methods of storing information are actually better and have improved. So it seems that there are little signs that our capability to store information and knowledge would end.

But here's the catch. Two, in fact. And they go hand-in-hand. Firstly, although the writings on books and rocks may fade over the years, they are still legible after thousands of years. Digital data storage on the other hand stores information in, well, digital format which means that one error (a flipping of 0 to 1 or vice versa) would make the entire data corrupted and completely useless (FYI, I know there is error coding, but it isn't sufficient). Secondly, and more importantly, how long do you think a USB thumbdrive, HDD or CD could retain information?

USB thumbdrive? 1 year. Yes, after 1 year, it will lose some or all the information stored in it. Transistors-based storage devices like USB stores information by storing charge. When they are not in use, some charge will be leaking. Although small in quantity, but over time it could be significant enough to flip the data bit from 1 to 0. That is why, if you read carefully the instructions booklet, they always ask you plug it into a PC at least once a year. This is to restore/recharge the charge.

CD, DVD and other optical disks stores information by having 'dents' that reflects lights differently, thus indicating a 1 or 0. Over time, about 20-30 years, these dents loses their ability to reflect lights properly. Because these things are built with such 'accuracy' and each 'dent' is very small, any slight degradation in the material is sufficient to reflect the light wrongly. Therefore, again, flipping a 1 to 0.

Magnetic storage devices (like our HDD) stores information on magnetic particles that have tiny magnets pointing in either two directions, thus indicating 1 or 0. But over the years, heat will cause these tiny magnets to slowly rotate and point in a random direction. After about 100 years, the magnets will be sufficiently random that our magnet heads would not be able to determine if it was a 1 or 0. Our digital data is once again, lost.

In fact, I've just read a journal paper that did a study on the reliability and the life-span of our modern information storage devices. The outcome of the study is that most of our so-called advanced storage devices will not last up to a century. Therefore, it advices that these devices need to be periodically 'updated' or 're-backup'.

But what if there is a war. A terrible war. World war 3, perhaps, that was fortunately not to wipe-off the human race but did a terrible damage to countries all over the world. Would the backup and update happen? It has happened in our history, war-torn countries have their libraries burnt. But some surviving books and cave-writing or other forms of 'older' information storage devices was buried under the sands and rocks, waiting to be discovered by archaeologist many many years later. But is this possible with our USB thumbdrive, CD, DVD and HDD? I'm afraid not.

Our reliance on these so-called modern technology would one day spell the end of our knowledge. All will be lost. All the archaeologist could find are rubbles, pieces of broken CDs and thumbdrives, where all the information about our once glorious civilisation will all be gone.

Of course, this may not happen. If we are able to avert a worldwide massive war or if we invent a 'better' device. But I doubt the former will happen. And seeing the trend of current technology and engineering to prefer simple, easy devices with little long-sightedness, I doubt the latter will happen too. Think about it, we always design, develop and engineer products so that they are fancy, sellable, funky, fast, easy and lasts long enough until the next product is out - which is approximately 3 years or even shorter for some devices. My first PC lasted me 10 years. My last PC lasted only 2 years; The camera my dad bought when I was still a kid lasted 10 years, my last digital camera lasted 3 years before becoming obsolete.

Yes, the end of knowledge will be here. Pray that it will not happen in our generation. Or the next.

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