Saturday, 27 January 2007

The misnudged quanta

The Microsoft Corporation has applied for a patent on a new idea which Martin Gardiner of Really Magazine looks at here. As he says, it is very difficult to see how it will work, or indeed what it actually is, but the concept appears to relate to the problem of storing the huge amounts of data which are accumulating, of accessing it, and of ensuring that it will be “immortal”.

Forty-six years ago, the socialist activist and author Hal Draper (1914-1990) wrote a witty and uncannily prescient short story called MS Fnd in a Lbry. It takes the form of a report written by an anthropologist from an alien civilization who investigates the remains of our civilization several billion years into the future. It turns out that mankind's fall was brought about by information overload and the inability to catalogue and retrieve knowledge properly.

The report chronicles the technological advances by which mankind found ways in which to cope with the increasing volume of data. When it was taking up an entire artificial planet new technologies enabled it to be condensed progressively into smaller spaces, until the sum of human knowledge, stored round the galaxy in a virtual sort of way, could be accessed from one drawer. Then they lost the drawer…

A footnote to the report suggests that the alien civilization, as yet unsuspecting, may be about to suffer a similar catastrophe. You can read the story here.

It is frightening to think that we may one day tackle the problem by means of techniques devised by the Microsoft Corporation, whose use in their patent application of the phrase “…during the lifespan of the immortalized data…” suggests that their grasp on these matters, not to mention the English language, is at best tenuous.

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