What does ancient oral storytelling have in common with cloud computing data centers? The connection lies in the fact that information cannot exist without a medium to store and deliver it. Before the invention of writing, human memory was the primary medium for storing information. Stories were passed down through oral traditions, yet these stories were constantly modified and warped as they were passed down, as imperfections in the medium strongly influenced the information. Information was lost whenever a story was told for the last time. The invention and growth of writing revolutionized the way that information was stored, allowing people much greater access (writings of a long-dead author, letters from far away relatives, current events, etc.). Writing increased the lifespan of information, although it was still very possible to lose data – history has seen far too many book burnings.
The advent of computing has brought about another information revolution, but it is important to remember that this data is still bound to physical media. In “A Material History of Bits,” Jean Francois Blanchette argues that bits “cannot escape the material constraints of the physical devices that manipulate, store, and exchange them” (1). Blanchette goes on to describe the mechanisms and processes that are used to store computer data. These mechanisms have again increased the lifespan of information – when information is lost on one system, often it can be recovered through another system. When most people log into Facebook or type in a Google search, they do not consider all of the physical computing systems that are involved in the process of bringing up the webpage on the screen. But the truth is that computing data is very much anchored to physical materials.
Consider a data apocalypse, where every single computer storage system in the world was destroyed (all bits reset to zero). It might seem intuitive that the information would still be floating around somewhere in vague immaterial space (as many people imagine the “cloud”), and that once the computer systems were rebuilt they would be able to dive back into the pool of information. However, if every computer storage system were emptied, then there would be no backups or other way of reclaiming the information. The reality is that once unanchored, the information would drift away like a balloon escaping from a child’s hand, never to be recovered.
Blanchette, Jean-Francois. “A Material History of Bits.” Web. 10 Oct. 2014.http://polaris.gseis.ucla.edu/blanchette/papers/materiality.pdf