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How can we be sure we'll remember our digital past?

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The problem of digital preservation reaches across two standards. There's the media – floppies, CDs, hard drives – and the format of the files themselves – does it run in DOS, Hypercard, ClarisWorks 2.0?

Microsoft tackles this issue of "legacy" computing by running a kind of corporate museum. The company protects its multiplatform history by preserving old copies of "every major hardware and software change," says Lee Dirks, director of Scholarly Communications at Microsoft and a task force member.

"We've got computers stored on campus that go back to the Altair, the first computer [to run Microsoft software]," he says. "In fact, we bought multiple copies of the Altair just in case."

But maintaining antique computers is a costly way to keep the past alive.

A concept that is gaining momentum, Mr. Dirks says, is emulation, where programmers trick modern computers into thinking the way their classic cousins did. This lets them run old software without retro machines. Another problem arises when the emulator itself is written for last generation's operating systems. Do you write an emulator to handle the original emulator?

A more likely approach to long-term preservation is migration, says Berman. This calls for updating the file format every generation – without changing the contents, one hopes. This method has problems, as well. Some of the original context will be lost in translation, says Dirks. Also, the scale of the conversation will snowball as the number, size, and back-catalog of the files increases with each passing generation of technology.

For example, after one year of photographing the night sky, LSST will likely produce more digital information on space than all past efforts combined, says Berman.

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