Pay Attention to the Bit Rot Problem


A discussion in the comments at Slashdot about this post, and the Perl programming language.

Before you click away in less time than it takes to think "I pay people to worry about this kind of stuff," consider a comment like this one in the /. thread: "to me the biggest issue is maintainability...Perl makes it easier than even C to write obfuscated bits of code that even the author has a hard time understanding a few months later."

This takes us back to recent discussions of COBOL, and leads to the larger issue of aging code and the loss of information when we can't read or work with older languages and technology. As Vint Cerf said in our recent conversation (more of which at the "Vint Cerf" tag beneath the post), "Bit rot is a stunningly big problem. It's very real for any company that plans to have any longevity."

More from Cerf:

We're only seeing the beginning elements of it, and we're being inundated with new information. Over time, we will accumulate a need for access to that older information. I'm already experiencing problems, like TIFF images that aren't interpretable, JPGs that aren't interpretable, as I move from one software base to another. Email that isn't readable, or that has attachments that have gotten lost - things like that, which are quite frustrating, and critically troublesome.

We need to step back and think about how to combat this tendency to lose information. I suspect that there are built into this problem some tough intellectual property issues. What happens if a piece of software is no longer being supported - do we still have access to it? Under what ground rules, and what conditions? Is it required that it be made available as source code? Do you have to provide it online, in the cloud somehow, so that people have access to the functionality? I don't think there are any rules right now.

I suspect that we need to ask what we should do in order to assure that information which important to us is accessible.

The historians, of course, are beside themselves, because more and more information about our society is in online form. It's wonderful when you can find it, but it's awful when you can't. We start to lose track of what people did, and what actually happened, because we can't see it anymore, can't read it. The email is lost, even though the bits are here, we don't know how to interpret it.

If there was a chief technology officer in the new administration, that would be one of the areas where I'd encourage serious consideration, because it has the potential for being very damaging.


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