A return to physical content archiving?

Hi.co, a major digital warehouse of user-generated text and images, has announced it will be archiving all its data on nickel plates.

Hi.co, a major digital warehouse of user-generated text and images, has announced it will be archiving all its data on nickel plates.

In a unique and unexpected twist on the traditional push to digitalization, Hi.co has announced it is shuttering its site, freezing services as of September 2016. What makes the story surprising is that the site's operators, Craig Mod and Chris Palmieri, have written in a Medium post that they will be archiving the site's nearly 2,000,000 words and 14,000 photos onto a microprinted two-by-two-inch nickel plate and sent to various locations all over the world, including a copy ending up in the Library of Congress.

'Medium, not media' 
The plates can only be viewed with a 1,000-power optical microscope and have a lifespan of roughly 10,000 years, resistant to fire, water and salt damage. Mod and Palmieri pointed out that, while they will be paying to maintain a digital, hosted version of the site and a historical copy will be entered into the Internet Archive, the process is designed to embrace a physical footprint over a digital one.

"The process does not produce "data." It is not like a CD," write Mod and Palmieri. "It is not a composition of 0's and 1's representing the information. It is the information itself. The nickel plate is a medium, not media.""

"The nickel plates have a lifespan of roughly 10,000 years."

Repository or crypt?
This take on "time capsule" archiving is nothing new: In their coverage of the Hi.co project, The Atlantic talks about the Crypt of Civilization, a 2,000-square-foot sealed vault initiated by President of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Thornwell Jacobs, in 1940. The vault contains about 640,000 pages of text reproduced on microfilm and is designated to be reopened in 8113 C.E.

"Today we can place articles in the crypt and nothing can keep them from being readable a million years from now," remarked Jacobs while planning the Crypt in 1938. This, in a sense, mirrors the optimism of Mod and Palmieri and even alludes to the coming modern era of increasingly inexpensive and simple content archiving. However, only two years later, Jacobs seemed to have taken on a more somber tone in the wake of global war breaking out.

"The world is now engaged in burying our civilization forever," he recorded as part of speech included in the Crypt, "and here in this crypt we leave it to you."

Time capsules 
While these words may seem melodramatic, they retain a certain ring of truth even now: While our archiving and content management capabilities have grown more sophisticated, archives will always remain vulnerable to acts of malice, negligence or simple indifference. The vast digital depositories of information we have aggregated and cataloged could vanish into the ether with the failure of a specific server or be rendered unreadable by future generations accessing it with futuristic technology. In essence, while the idea of a physical archive for media may seem antiquated, it may in fact be a worthwhile investment in preserving content well into the foreseeable future.

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