Data storage is getting more reliable every year, but if that causes concern over whether or not you’ll be able to protect yourself by destroying sensitive data, worry not: even the most advanced technologies of the future will crumble with the strike of a hammer.
Destructible storage is a good thing for your personal data, but maybe not for preserving the records of the human race for all of eternity—something that’s arguably more important than credit card numbers.
Indestructible—or at least reliable—is what scientists are working toward as a goal. Data storage is getting a lot better every year, and just a few weeks ago researchers in the U.K. announced a major breakthrough: a glass-medium storage system that could outlive all of humanity.
Researchers used a nanostructured glass disc as a medium, and essentially etched data “in three layers of nanostructured dots separated by five micrometers (one millionth of a meter).”
According to that same announcement, “The self-assembled nanostructures change the way light travels through glass, modifying polarization of light that can then be read by combination of optical microscope and a polarizer, similar to that found in Polaroid sunglasses. The information encoding is realized in five dimensions: the size and orientation in addition to the three dimensional position of these nanostructures.”
Most reports compared it to the famous crystals from the Superman mythos: the ones that stored the entire history of Superman’s planet within a few ounces of crystal space.
That’s an apt comparison, most notably because those crystals, sent off with young Superman before his planet was destroyed, outlived his entire species, preserving a record of their existence long after they disappeared from the universe.
This new storage module has the capacity to do the same for the human race. Dr. Peter Kazansky, a professor at the Optoelectronics Research Centre at the University of Southampton and one of the researchers, explained that it’s quite a significant jump from DVDs and the other storage media currently in wide use, like DVDs. “In most DVDs there are only three degrees of freedom—three coordinates. Here we have two additional coordinates, orientations. Two additional degrees of freedom to record information.”
Aside from the added storage capabilities, glass modules are far more reliable. “They’re very durable. Normal CDs or DVDs they don’t last too long, because normally after five years or seven years, normal information will be corroded and degraded,” says Kazansky. “Because we use silica glass—it’s a very durable material, and very abundant on earth—the melting temperature is as much as 1,000 degrees [Celsius] at least. So it can survive very high temperature.”
But it’s how long they’d survive that’s most incredible: Kazansky says the lifetime would be “comparable to the lifetime of the universe (as much as 14 billions years).” That means we’d still be able to read the Big Bang’s journals, if it had kept any in its teen years.
But while it may stand the test of time, glass is clearly not known for its physical durability. The tradeoff for something that can be stuck on a shelf for a century and function again immediately: if you knock it off the shelf, it breaks. “Obviously you can destroy it if you hit it with a hammer,” says Kazansky.
That’s where grandiose dreams of preserving humanity’s existence sort of fall short. It’s bleak to consider that, even if we launched billions of recordings into the cosmos, our sun burns at over 5,000 degrees Celsius. That’s way past the distortion (and melting) points. Not to mention the danger of being struck by debris, asteroids, of hitting planets, or being sucked into black holes.
There’s good news in that though. First of all, most of our data never touches the surface of the sun, or gets within proximity of black holes. And the average house fire doesn’t get above 600 degrees Celsius—so this medium has the capacity to survive a house fire.
More to the point, the human race’s data is of great philosophical importance, but practically speaking, most of what we store and save is not what future generations, or alien species, will care to read. You may want your high school poetry folder to stand the test of time, but in reality a generation or two is long enough for your grandkids to read it, and delete it to preserve your dignity.
There’s the more serious consideration, too, of being able to destroy data for your own protection. Yes, for many there’s the sense that an embarrassing photo can never be truly deleted once it becomes part of the Internet’s wealth of memes, but the idea that dissidents fighting tyrants will still have a simple, hammer-centric solution to protecting their comrades, and that old computers from banks and law firms can be safely disposed of, is comforting.
Those are all considerations for the future: right now this new technology is slow to record, expensive to produce, and still in testing phases. Kazansky expected it to be years before the format can be considered as a “replacement” for contemporary media.
Until then, our own Fortresses of Solitude will have to rely on flash drives and hard discs.