February 6th, 2008
I had an experience recently that reminded me how fragile the Knowledge Value Chain really is. A client had asked for information on the quality of intelligence, a topic that I’ve addressed in many talks over the years. I looked through dozens of PowerPoint slide shows from these talks, and was printing the slides that were most relevant to his question.
Then, when looking though a file created about 12 years ago, I got an error message that the file was incompatible, and could not be opened. I tried another file of the same vintage, and got the same message.
After some research on one of Microsoft’s excellent support sites, I’ve come to the conclusion that the software I’m using (PowerPoint 2007, which I find superior in all other respects to its predecessor) will not open the file I’m trying to access.
To be fair, it is possible to load the previous version of the software (2003) and retrieve the file. Because The Knowledge Agency is a Microsoft Partner, we get all of their software and would not incur additional charges to do this.
At least not for software. The time and hassle for my company to do this must also be factored in.
But what about companies that are not Microsoft Partners, and who typically standardize on one set of software? Will this create a market for third-party data translation experts (such firms exist)—or will companies in general just “forget” about this older data in the heat of battle?
If my experience is any indication, the latter will be the outcome.
And we’re just talking about file format incompatibilities. What about media reader incompatibilities? In my recent office move, I came across dozens of Zip disks—which I have no ready way to access. Anybody still have data on a 3½-inch floppy drive? Good luck finding a machine that has a drive that will read it. And how about the 5¼-inch disks that the original PCs used when they debuted in 1982?
And so on, you get the idea. Now, I’m not suggesting that the pace of change should slow. Each of these changes is for the most part an improvement over earlier technologies, and Microsoft and other companies in general do make an effort to maintain file backwards-compatibility—over a delimited span of time.
It’s just a question of what that time span is. I suggest the term digital half-life for the average time between the creation of a digital file and the general market introduction of a “new and improved” version that will no longer open that file in one simple step (like clicking on the file icon).
Contrast this with the life of books. When I was at Yale, I used to go to the Beineke Rare Book Library, not to read anything, but just to look and marvel at things like a 500-year-old Gutenberg bible. With care, that bible will still be readable in another 500 years.
But my PowerPoint? Not readable after 12 years. Lest you get the wrong idea, my point is not to compare my slide show with the Bible! In fact, I’m not at all sure I would have even used the data if I had been able to open the file.
It’s just the principle that data “evaporates” so quickly—it’s scary.
What are the implications of this? For TKA as a research company, it means that we print anything important in hard copy, and file it. That’s just a basic operating rule around here.
For me as an observer of the information landscape, it has more grave implications. IF as a society we digitize everything—and we’re accelerating our progress in that direction…AND IF these data files have a digital half-life that can in some cases be counted in single digit years…THEN we run the risk of becoming a society that systematically “forgets” everything rapidly.
A society that forgets nearly instantly will not be burdened by a lot of baggage it’s dragging into the future. But it also may need to “reinvent the wheel” over and over—unless it finds a way to just do without wheels.