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Decay of Materials and Information Loss from Technology

Information and knowledge

In Chapter 9, I discussed how knowledge that is passed along orally is tenuous, as it needs a continuous chain of reliable intermediaries. It is equally susceptible to misinterpretation as languages evolve or are totally lost. Written records do not physically change with time, but problems of language evolution, nuances, and cultural significance of a text are just as serious. This is equally true of images, as we may have a 30,000-year-old cave painting, but we can only guess at the meaning. Nevertheless, written or electronically stored information is both valuable and interpretable for current information.

Therefore, in this chapter I will explore how different storage formats have survived. The historical changes and patterns they reveal are essential in giving confidence, or not, in our trend to relying solely on electronic systems. Modern electronic storage, whether on CDs, home computers, or distant central ‘cloud’ stores, now have immense capacity, and, since they are increasing at exponential rates, they could readily contain all previous records. Further, via Internet and other linkages we can, at least in principle, access them from any location. There is intense industrial marketing and media hype that this is the way we should proceed, and scrap older formats. Despite the advantages, I am also offering a forceful warning that a total move to electronic storage has a significant number of negative features. Certainly, in terms of home computer storage, many examples of data loss are already evident as progress and new operating systems and formats can all too often make older files inaccessible.

Similarly, there are dangers in relying on remote information storage, as we are dependent on electronic communications. Not only is there not universal electronic access, but in Chapter 1, I offered a plausible, indeed probable future scenario of major loss of satellite links and electrical power because of a solar mass ejection in a sunspot flare. That style of problem will be long-lasting and major. However, satellite failure or losses can occur for many other reasons, from age and decay of their components to more dramatic collisions between satellites. One such was in 2009 between the US Iridium 33 and the Russian Cosmos 2251 communication systems. Although the event only initially involved two satellites, this situation could easily worsen. An equally serious potential concern for both the USA and Russia is that if a military satellite were destroyed, it will be unclear if it were from a genuine accident or from destruction from another nation. The political consequences are potentially serious.

Because the orbits of most satellites are similar (the physics requires it), it is certain that the debris from each collision will destroy others at similar orbital distances from the earth. The key difficulty is predicting the life expectancy of the satellites.

This scenario could be used in disaster movies, but unfortunately, rather than just being fiction, it is based on the real possibility of collisions and destruction of satellites with fragments from earlier collisions. It is known as the Kessler syndrome. The problem is that satellites can fail, as did the Envisat, which is sitting as a large, lifeless, 8,000-kg (~8-ton) piece of expensive failed technology (it cost around $3 billion). It is travelling at up to 20,000 km per hour (—12,500 mph) in the same path zone where there are now some 20,000 fragments over 10 cm long travelling at similar speeds, plus maybe a 100 million fragments of less than 1 cm. Even tiny pieces at this speed have immense energy that can cause severe damage.

Appreciating the scale of a possible impact is difficult, but for those familiar with damage from high-speed rifle bullets, we can sense the scale of the collisions. In the low earth orbit region where most satellites operate, even tiny fragments can have 100 times the kinetic energy of impacting bullets. Larger items will scale up the collision energy by more than a thousand times. Not surprisingly, the data from 2014 indicate there is typically one satellite loss per year of the 2,000 or so satellites that are currently in similar geocentric orbits. Near misses between fragments and satellites, or other debris, are relatively frequent, and can be tracked by radar data. Actual impacts will just boost the number of fragments, and there is the ongoing concern that major losses of satellites could happen from debris cascades.

The tracking is essential, as the International Space Station now needs to be repositioned five to ten times a year to avoid predictable collisions with larger fragments. The only good news in this respect is that some satellites and fragments are moving in similar orbits and directions, and, at least in those examples, the relative fragment speeds are less.

Solar flare electrical power loss has happened several times, as have widespread power failures linked to overloads as climate has reduced the water in reservoirs behind hydroelectric systems. Water shortages have caused sustained electrical power loss. The electrical grid failure in three regions of India in July 2012 caused a prolonged blackout for some 620 million people (i.e. nearly 10 per cent of the world population).

Water shortages linked to power problems are equally likely in other countries. In the USA, difficulties have arisen from hydroelectric power from Lake Mead, plus closure of nuclear stations through lack of cooling water. We have a fragile and complex interlinked support system for our society, and loss of electronic communications may be one of the least critical items that could collapse. Nevertheless, it could remove vast quantities of stored data.

Central data storage can be compromised by terrorist and malware attacks. In 2016 there have been targeted sites which were overloaded by automated data requests that effectively closed the sites for several days on each occasion. More coordinated attacks could block general access to cloud stores over extended periods. So overall, it is important for us to explore and consider how permanent are our records, and also how easily we can refer to them. Quite independently, it is essential to ask if we can trust the information we find, and can we not only read it but also understand it. In all cases, from our own records to ancient historical items, some losses are inevitable, so in order to better preserve information, we must learn very rapidly why this happens. If we understand the causes of information loss, maybe (but only maybe) future generations will remember us and our thoughts. Finally, as I mentioned earlier, central storage may not continue to be at a low cost, nor free of government or criminal interventions, nor indeed is there any guarantee that it will it be updated in terms of electronic formats or maintained without ongoing funding.

 
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