Do We Still Need Papyrus?


(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

Yes. As a matter of fact, we all still need something similar to the ancient Egyptian superpaper that is still readable 4000 years later. One of the reasons remains the same for which all of our culture is in danger, that is, the disastrous mess which software misuse is leaving us in: nothing less than forgetting, faster every year, what we are doing and why, even when there are human lives at stake.

The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Nimitz was launched in 1972. The files containing its mechanical diagrams, whose availability is critical to ensuring proper maintenance of the ship, are already incompatible with modern software. On July 20th, 1976, the Viking Lander became the first spacecraft to operate on the surface of Mars, collecting a lot of extremely valuable information. Only that twenty seven years later, it was necessary to track down printed copies of those data and hire students to retype everything, because nobody understood anymore the format of those documents.

In 2005 the UK Atomic Energy Authority (UKAEA) started an 8 billion pound project to dismantle 26 atomic reactors. The plan is simple: collect all the radioactive waste, bury it in concrete bunkers and make sure that everybody living in their vicinities for the next five thousands years knows that they must avoid those bunkers and why. Five millennia is a long time: somebody said that if you really want any instruction you have given to others to be followed for so long you must start a religion about it.

While UKAEA did not start a Nuclear Waste Awareness cult, it was forced to exclude the usage of computer files, because so far their average duration has been even less than the two decades of the Viking data. UKAEA had to go for something a bit more reliable: a modern version of papyrus, that is a special kind of paper which, just like papyrus, won’t discolor or rot. Three sets of the documents have been prepared, and will be stored separately.

Making good, old fashioned hard copies of important information is always a good idea, but we are all wasting a lot of money and time today because the preservation of digital information is anything but reliable.

One might not care less about what might happen to the Britons of the 25th century, or one might hope that the Nimitz will be many thousands of miles away the day when its engineers won’t be able to figure out from the diagrams how to fix a broken engine.

Even in that case, however, government agencies must be accountable, today and over the next decades, to citizens, government officials, courts and auditors. In order to do this, they are already spending a lot of public money because yes, we do live in a digital world, but it is such a broken one that the national archives of many states are not allowed to preserve documents only in digital format. Unless this mess is fixed, we’ll indeed still need papyrus, but only have that. Until that day we’ll have to give up not just the money that must still be spent on paper and storage space, but also the reading of public documents online, at no cost, from everybody’s home or School.

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