Deep Time – perspectives on managing long term value digital information June 11, 2014

Toxic HazardJune 9 was International Archives Day. Happy International Archives Day everyone!

Back in 2001, physicist and science fiction writer Gregory Benford wrote a book called Deep Time: How Humanity Communicates across Millennia. In it he asked questions like, in one million years time, what information will we need to leave to the future inhabitants of Earth?

These types of questions are genuinely being asked today by bodies like the International Atomic Energy Agency’s International Waste Safety Standards Committee. This committee sets the program of work and approves drafts of international safety standards for radioactive waste management and disposal.

Radioactive waste is generally buried. For long-lived forms of waste, it will take up to one million years for the level of hazard posed by this buried waste to be fully extinguished.

A challenge then for groups like the International Waste Safety Standards Committee is to determine the best means to protect future generations by warning them where radioactive material is buried. They genuinely need to determine how to keep information accessible and meaningful over timescales of one million plus years.

Obviously, much considered thought has been applied to this issue.

In 2005, Gavan McCarthy from the University of Melbourne and Ian Upshall, from Nirex Ltd, UK were the principal authors of a report called Draft Safety Report on Preservation and Transfer to Future Generations of Information Important to the Safety of Waste Disposal Facilities

This report gives some great examples of the scale of the challenge of communicating through deep time:

At various times, human societies have tried to create structures that would last in perpetuity, for example, the pyramids in Egypt. Other structures created in stone, such as Stonehenge in England, have also lasted many thousands of years but it is still unclear exactly why they were built and what purposes they served in society.

Our knowledge of what these entities were for and why they were built is directly proportional to the amount of surviving contextual information associated with them. Radioactive waste disposal facilities, especially those for long-lived waste, will stand alongside these monuments as the longest-lived physical entities created by society. However, future generations must never be in doubt as to why these facilities exist and the risks they pose.

In 2012, Hope Newman, a student working with Dr Geoff Williams, the Chair of the International Waste Safety Standards Committee and scientist at the Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA), researched ideas for communicating important safety messages to future generations through deep time.

Hope’s research identified a range of methods for transmitting information through millennia, including using:

  • the model of Australian Indigenous communities and retaining important communal and community knowledge through inter-generational storytelling
  • DNA as a data storage device. Research is showing that seven hundred terabytes of data can be stored in one gram of DNA. DNA also has a half life of 521 years if not preserved well, but if preserved under -5°C it can last for an estimated 1.5 million years. The oldest DNA samples ever recovered are from insects and plants in ice cores in Greenland up to 800,000 years old.
  • a sapphire-based hard disk which should remain useable for more than one million years
  • signs and symbols, such as a skull and crossbones, and colours, such as red and yellow, to communicate risk, rather than language
  • megaliths constructed on top of waste sites, or other means of making the site ‘self documenting’, such as building thick layer of vitrified glass around the site, which would impede access and promote caution by people approaching it in the future
  • the government and archives as official custodians of this knowledge and as guardians of community safety, and building ongoing responsibilities for these roles into governmental and archival responsibilities.

Hope’s research suggests that using a combination of these methods will be the most effective means of ensuring important messages can be transmitted across time and generations.

She notes that advances in waste treatment and management are likely to radically reduce the likelihood and longevity of threats from radioactive waste but until this occurs, proactive planning for transmitting information through deep time is necessary to protect the safety of future generations.

I would like to sincerely thank Dr Geoff Williams and Hope Newman for contacting us at Future Proof to discuss long term information management and for being so willing to share their thoughts in this area.

While the incredibly important work they are doing is beyond the timescale that applies to most of us working in government today, International Archives Day should give us pause to stop and assess what long term needs and requirements apply to the business we are all performing.

What needs, right and expectations will the next generation have for information about the business that you do? What records do you need to be making? What proactive strategies do you need to have in place to ensure this information can be retained for as long as it is needed?

In each of our organisations, there is a core of information that will need to be kept for periods of ten or more years, for business, legal, personnel, client or community purposes. It is really important to be aware that in the digital world, maintaining accessible and useable information for periods of only up to 10 years can be a significant challenge that needs proactive planning and management.

Therefore, use International Archives Day as a driver to think about your organisation’s long term information needs.

You may not have to develop strategies to keep your information accessible for literally one million years, but you will need to have carefully considered governance arrangements and approaches to enable you to keep and access your information for as long as you need it.

State Records’ new advice on Transitioning to digital business and on Making decisions about how long to keep digital information, outline issues and strategies to consider when moving to digital business frameworks and when seeking to manage information effectively in digital environments.

Tell us what strategies have worked best for you to safeguard the accessibility of your digital business information by leaving a comment below, and happy International Archives Day!


photo by: eek the cat
Sean Wright June 20th, 2014

Excellent post that highlights some of the longer term issues.

If you have time, checkout the 99 Percent Invisible Podcast aligned with this theme: the difficulty of communicating forward ten-thousand years:

It captures and echoes some of the sentiments above!

Keep up the good work…

Kate Cumming June 20th, 2014

Thank you so much, Sean, will listen with great interest! All the best, Kate

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