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Disaster Recovery For the End of Civilization

Disaster recovery is never fun to think about, but necessary for any organization. Hope for the best, plan for the worst and all that. Most organizations hope to be comprehensive in this regard. They want seamless failover to make sure there’s as little disruption as possible when the worst happens. This happens all the time, and it’s a credit to these systems and solutions that for end-users, this isn’t much of a consideration.

But how do you plan for large scale disaster recovery? Not like a whole site, building, or even a city, but all of civilization as we know it? All of the sudden you’re less worried about IOPS. The issue with a lot of digital archival techniques is that they generally assume some sort of regular human maintenance, and a continuing basic infrastructure. These archives are almost never human readable, and require systems in themselves to recover data.

Luckily Martin Kunze is thinking of these things. His solution is kind of the opposite of going to the cloud. Instead, he wants to bury ceramic tablets in an old salt mine for future preservation. They’re less Old Testament tablets, and more ceramic film, only about 1mm thick, then encased in glass. The writing will be small, requiring a 10x magnifying glass to read. Each 20cm piece could hold about 5 million characters. For context, War and Peace has a little over 3.1 million characters. In a plain text file, that would be about 3.2MB. At that scale, these actually have similar density to a 3.5-inch floppy, if you were only writing text.

Image Source: Memory of Mankind

The problem I see isn’t in the preservation, by all accounts, the ceramics would hold up very well in a number of conditions. The issue is what you decide to preserve, and how you categorize it. Any attempt to be “comprehensive” will certainly exhibit cultural biases. Just as important would be how you index the material. This would essentially constitute the search of this data backup. In the event of a civilization failover, I feel like people would notice a disruption in data access. With an inadequate index, the whole project could turn into some post-apocalyptic version of The Library of Babel.

Maybe I just watched too much Twilight Zone as a kid, but I also image a situation where the last magnifying glass gets broken before instructions on how to grind new ones could be found. Somewhere, Burgess Meredith is sad.

I have some logistical issues with how Martin Kunze is putting together this project. He calls it The Memory of Mankind. In some of its promotion, it tends to veer a little bit into art project territory as much as an archival project. But while I can quibble with the implementation, I actually think this is a really worthwhile idea. I desperately hope this is a big waste of time, but if it isn’t, we’ll be glad he thought about it.

About the author

Rich Stroffolino

Rich has been a tech enthusiast since he first used the speech simulator on a Magnavox Odyssey². Current areas of interest include ZFS, the false hopes of memristors, and the oral history of Transmeta.

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