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Communications of the ACM


The Forever Disc

Long Now Foundation's Rosetta Disk

The Long Now Foundation's Rosetta Disk.

Credit: Rolfe Horn / The Long Now Foundation

Our ancestors speak to us across millennia through paper, canvas, and stone; the natural world encompasses a narrative billions of years old. Yet data on magnetic and optical media fade within decades. If we have information worth passing on, how can we better store it for future generations? Could it outlast even our species itself; if so, how can we make its meaning evident to its recipients?

These are questions faced by digital preservationists who are starting to design data storage mechanisms that can survive centuries, millennia, and beyond. In doing so, they reveal the surprising possibility that we may be able to embed messages in our bodies and our descendants' bodies to last for millions of years, under the right circumstances.

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The Scale of Time

Digital preservationists are typically charged with maintaining materials for years or decades, depending on need. A business' client records, for example, might only be useful as long as the relationship is active; the law may additionally require the business to save those records for a few more years. Those with longer-term needs often find themselves rolling their own solutions based on expected storage length, available resources, and the type of data to be stored.


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