Star Trek creator was clueless about computers /img/roddenberry-star-trek-in-floppies.png

“Star Trek creator didn’t have a clue of how computer actually work, and how to preserve digital documents, and the curators of his estate weren’t much better”: this should be the appropriate title for the story titled “How Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s words were freed from old floppy disks”. (but see the important update below!)

The facts:

  • During the 1970s and 1980s Gene Roddenberry saved a lot of unpublished writings as files stored in about 200 5.25-inch floppy disks
  • When Roddenberry died, in 1991, those floppy disks were already obsolete, compared to 3.5 floppy disks and CD-Roms
  • from the PC World article, it seems that those disks were never lost, that is that the Roddenberry estate waited about twenty more years to start getting the files out of those disks. When they started, in 2012, it took a “Starfleet-level engineering effort to recover them”. See the article for details

What the facts really mean:

  • Neither Roddenberry, who wrote about futuristic technology every day, nor his assistants, ever realized that it is a terribly, terribly stupid idea to never make copies of ones digital documents on newer physical supports, i.e. move them from 5.25 to 3.5 floppies, then from those floppies to CD-ROM, then from there to USB drive or cloud and so on
  • Ditto for the Roddenberry estate, when they took over the disks, if they really sit on them for twenty years. In 1991 it would have still taken a couple of days and a few tens of dollars to recover those files.
  • the ones above are the ONLY reasons why the Roddenberry Estate had to spend a lot of money to recover those documents in 2012. That is not a story of files “freed from floppy disks”: it’s a story of files locked for decades, without any real reason but cluelessness
  • Not-so-side note: to know the content of those files, written almost 40 years ago by somebody who died 25 years ago, we still need permission from somebody who had no part in creating them. EVEN if they are non-confidential, public interest documents, i.e. new Star Trek tales.

 Last but not least…

  • of course, having the files on a modern physical support is not enough to read them today, if they were originally written in a secret/undocumented file format, and never converted later. But reverse engineering the file format alone would have been much much easier and cheaper. Here I’m only focusing on the hardware part of Roddenberry’s cluelessness because that is what the original article is about
  • the same thing could happen to any file you own today, if YOU don’t take care of regularly copying it to modern physical supports. Or to any files about you stored by your employee, hospital, insurance company, pension fund and so on. Make sure every few years that all your files are in easily usable formats, on current storage devices, and you’ll never find yourself in an embarrassing situation as the Roddenberry estate did

Update 2016/01/08 9:45am GMT: I have found only 10 minutes ago this other post about Roddenberry’s floppies which says that “The reason it took so long is awe-inspiring:** [Roddenberry] _made his own computers”**._ Including, so it seems, the operating system. If this is what happened…

  • of course, strictly speaking, it’s really wrong to define “clueless about computers” anybody able to build his own computer and software,  especially in the 1970s!
  • still, I have real problems to define as “smart” saving documents in a format that you know will be, or already is, unreadable with any other current computer system. Unless it’s exactly what he wanted, of course, but why? Bah. So basically the whole post is still valid “as is”, as far as I am concerned