University of Illinois Assistant Professor Jerome McDonough says the issue stems from the mass of data being produced -- at last count, 369 exabytes worth of data, including electronic records, tax files, e-mail, music and photos. An Exabyte, he explained, is 1 quintillion bytes -- a quintillion is the number 1 followed by 18 zeroes.
The concern is much of the data we produce today could soon become inaccessible. "After all," McDonough asks, "when was the last time you opened a WordPerfect file or tried to read an 8-inch floppy disk?"
He said according to the National Archives Web site, by the mid-1970s only two machines could read data from the 1960 U.S. Census. One was in Japan, the other in the Smithsonian Institution. Some of the data collected from NASA's 1976 Viking landing on Mars is already unreadable and lost forever.
"If we want information to survive, we need to avoid formats that depend on a particular media type," he said. "When the old media dies, the information dies with it."