The Zen of long-term data storage, nuclear waste disposal, and relationships

Some friends were having a discussion about the best options for long-term data storage, and someone with real expertise pointed out that the only real long-term solutions are “living” versus “dead” solutions, that is, things that are actively maintained.  There’s no media that will sit safely on a shelf forever.

This is a super important general principle of, well, everything.  When I was working at an environmental law firm, one of the partners, who became the head of the state department of ecology and was heavily involved in the Hanford cleanup, was talking to me about long-term nuclear waste storage.  He emphasized the same point: there’s no “set it and forget it” solution, however much our wishful thinking might want it. If you want anything to stay the way you want it for a long time, it requires active attention and effort. Otherwise the only force acting is entropy, and the only certainty is that it will degrade in some unpredictable way.

In fact, the use of the words “living” versus “dead” is actually super profound here. There’s no *definitive* definition of “life”, but the best anyone can do is that a system is living if it uses energy to maintain a low level of internal entropy despite whatever happens to it from outside. So what Richard is describing here for maintaining the integrity of data, does actually literally (by “literally” I mean “literally” as opposed to “figuratively”, not the currently popular usage of “literally” to mean “I am using a random word I don’t understand to try to provide emphasis”) meet that definition of “life”.  (Depending on how you define the system in question, of course; that’s always one of the major holdups on definitions of life.)

This is one of those things I’ve found that the more you think about it, the more it affects you. Someone should write a book on “the Zen of high-reliability systems” or something. In fact, I think I know just the guy, I’ll have to talk to him about this.

For example, there are places on Earth where the climate is extremely favorable to life (hot, high humidity) and other places where the climate is much less favorable (very cold, or very dry). On the other hand, if you travel around a lot, speaking for myself at least I’ve found that the places that are *very* favorable for life feel a lot more “unlivable” to me than the places that are not so much. The reason for this is that my egocentric individual-survivial-cognitive-processing-system (i.e. “my mind”) which makes that evaluation, is only making the evaluation for me; not for life in general. From the point of view of life in general, there is more thriving of life if I am naked in the Amazon being eaten by parasites, but that’s not so great from the egocentric point of view.

This is why I have come to believe that a lot of our collections of ideas about life and survival are fundamentally flawed. Not flawed because the people involved are making mistakes; just flawed because life is all fundamentally a compromise. I’ll briefly say two examples of what I mean: environmentalism is usually thought of as some sort of non-egocentric compassionate aspiration to protect the viability of all life everywhere, but the reality is that no environmentalist would actually prefer to be eaten by parasites or whatever. So environmentalism is all being thought in the context of “just the right amount of life”. Also, the idea of humans expanding into space to increase the range of options for long-term survivability of the human race is also usually thought of as a noble goal, but it’s common for people to imagine the diaspora as being comfortably air-conditioned; it’s not at all clear that life as a whole can survive in that kind of environment; even if it is what we have come to think of as most livable, our sense of what’s livable is mainly driven by our perceptions of what DOESN’T support life, because we are in competition against so much other life.

On a more personal level, my own experience is that I’ve never had any part of my life where I could say “I finally have X under control, I don’t have to worry about that any more,” even though I (consciously and unconsciously) keep wishing for it.  One of the big points there has been relationships. Relationships require more active maintenance than data storage or nuclear waste disposal, and also lead to worse consequences when improperly maintained.

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