Something like modern paper first appeared in China in the 2nd century BC, and the pulp papermaking process like we use today seems to have been invented in China in the 2nd century AD by Cai Lun, a Han court eunuch. The real reason for the need of paper in China was as a substitute for silk as a communications media. Using paper allowed China to export a lot more silk, contributing to significant economic growth.
Paper didn’t get to Europe until the 13th century, via the Islamic world. However, it wasn’t until the 19th century with Industrial Revolution manufacturing techniques that paper became readily available and inexpensive enough for use by pretty much everybody. Suddenly, books were affordable, and information exchange became the norm, not the exception. In a real sense, cheap paper enabled the rapid exponential growth of information and thus technology that we are still experiencing today.
Most of you are saying, “Wait, wait. Paper is much older than 2nd century BC.” While it is true that the word “paper” comes from the ancient Greek “papyrus” after the Cyperus papyrus plant, papyrus is the lamination of natural plants, while paper is manufactured from fibers that have been processed through maceration or disintegration to give the final product the uniform characteristics we have in today’s paper.
Paper is a convenient media to create, read and store data. But it does have a few minor problems:
- It burns easily. If you read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 as a kid, you know the ignition temperature of paper. Depending on the actual chemical composition of the paper, its ignition temperature can vary, but it is usually within a few degrees of 233º C (451º F). We often use paper as the starter for wood or charcoal fires; any building fire will usually completely eliminate any paper resources.
- Paper is fairly fragile. It gets stuff spilled on it, the contents fades, the paper itself may fade, and it easily rips and tears.
- It is hard to find something. Paper gets misfiled, stuck in the back of a book, put with something that made a logical connection back then, but makes no sense now. And even if you have the right piece or set of paper, you have to skim it to find what you are looking for.
- You have to be physically where the paper is to read it.
- It can get lost, or stolen. Unlike digital data, which can be stolen without it disappearing, when a piece of paper is lost or stolen, the content is gone.
- It is hard to backup.
- It is hard to store: it is heavy and large.
A few years ago I finished a five-year project to digitize our analog music, plus over 100 years’ accumulation of pictures and other family historical documents. The originals are still in boxes downstairs, taking up about 35 cubic feet of space, and weighing close to half a ton. Considering the amount of music and pictures we have accumulated only in digital form over the last ten years, there is no way I could keep it all in some physical format. I would really hate to lose any of that data.
Digitally, it all fits on one portable hard drive, 4.5” x 5.25” x 0.38” weighing less than 6 ounces. It is searchable, easy to duplicate and thus backup multiple times, and easy to store.
Enter the Cloud. Both Google and Microsoft provide some amount of free storage of documents, images and videos. Google limits the free storage to 1GB. 20GB costs $5 per year. Microsoft provides up to 25GB of free storage on Windows Live SkyDrive.
There are dozens of these file hosting services. Most do not seem to advertise any availability guarantees (i.e., we guarantee that we won’t lose your data), and some have interesting “expiration” policies (i.e., we will delete your data after so many days of inactivity).
There are also at least eight companies that specifically provide on-line backup in the Cloud. These companies are specifically designed to save data, and most have the ability to encrypt the data.
As with anything in the Cloud, read the contract carefully before you trust your data to the Cloud. But with the right solution, you can protect your data and get to it from anywhere.
The last word:
If you really do store valuable things digitally, there is a huge danger. We have a picture taken in 1882 of some relatives. It can still be viewed today on paper. It is physically fragile, faded and cracked, but still usable. Now that it has been scanned, it will not deteriorate further. However, unless I, and later my kids, periodically do something, it will not last in that digital form for another 129 years.
Back in the 1970s I recorded all of our records onto quarter-inch reel-to-reel tape. In the 1980s I switched over to cassette tape (going back to the original records). These are all analog recordings, so each transition loses something. In the early 2000s, I did it all again to CDs. Now it is digital. Nothing can go wrong. When I wanted to eliminate the CDs I simply put everything into iTunes (OK, that took a year). Then I put a small part into a couple of iPods, which took just a few minutes.
I still have the cassette tapes, but nothing that will play them. In five years, I won’t have anything that will play the CDs. In that same time frame, I expect to have to do a major transition on the pictures. The current popular image formats (GIF, PNG, TIFF, JPEG) are all less than 30 years old and have gone through a number of iterations. The “movie” formats are much newer. While the digital media will last at least a decade, the formats may not.
I go through my archived files about every five years just copying them to a new media, and looking for file formats that are no longer supported. The riskiest files are those with proprietary formats used by applications (e.g., .doc, .xls). While I don’t expect Microsoft to disappear in the next 20 years, I guarantee that some of the earlier versions of these formats will be unreadable by whatever Microsoft Word has morphed into by then. “Printing” to PDF is probably safer, but that format has also had significant changes in the ten years since the specification was first released.
The only constant is change. Count on it.
Keep your sense of humor.