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After the Screen Fades to Black

Sometimes the laptop tells you when its time to quit.

When it comes to emotive eyebrows, the telework speaker at the 2002 Spouse Employment Conference rivaled the Rock. "You backed up everything on your hard drive before your laptop crashed, right? Right?"

"Of course, I backed up all the presentations for this conference. I've got the disk right here." No lie. Too many years as a Department of Defense public affairs officer taught me to expect disaster to strike all special events. NORAD (the folks who track Santa, for the acronymicly challenged) can't hold a candle to my redundant systems for conferences, command activations, official anniversaries or anything else the government takes it in its head to do.

The pointy eyebrow of doom reached skyward. Damn. My sickly smile gave me away. No, I didn't back up my hard drive, but as far as I could tell, the problem lay in the hardware, not the software, so I should be able to download andů

Every generation creates its metaphor for complete and total helplessness, the utter victimization of the individual by the unbridled chaos of the universe. As old concepts such as excommunication and damnation lose their force, we create new ones: computer crash, corrupted data, black screen.

Sometimes it seems as if our technology carries the seed of the next Dark Ages. Not in the sense of providing easy access to all kinds of information, from how to build a bomb to the street map of a key military installation. Schooling the evil-minded could lead to the end of civilization as we know it, though the history of our species argues against it. Usually, greater access to information leads to greater understanding and progress in all areas.

No, I refer to the inherent fragility of the information stored on the Internet.

People speak of the fragility of ink on paper, how many ways the pages can be erased, damaged or reduced to dust. Yet our libraries possess pages from a two thousand-year-old manuscript of the plays of the Greek comic writer Menander used to stuff the insides of Greco-Roman mummy cases. Those pages can be read by anyone with a working knowledge of classical Greek. The information contained in those writings requires only eyes to see it and minds to understand it.

But data stored electronically requires more than eyes or ears and minds. It demands an entire infrastructure of energy to power devices to transmit to and from storage media which, in and of themselves, cannot be comprehended by human senses. An unlabeled floppy disk, a CD- or DVD-Rom provides no clue to its contents; a data stream, even less. You can't reach any kind of electronic information without processing it through the right kind of hardware and software. "Close but no cigar" absolutely applies.

Where will we be when the power runs thin, or newer media replace today's standards? Will all the precious information we horde so carefully -- our stories and our imaginings -- will all these things find their way to the new systems? Or will our children, in unconscious imitation of the refugees in Barbara Hambly's Darwath Series, stare in pained, ignorant wonder at a warehouse of shiny disks? Will they brush their fingers over the keys to a kingdom forever beyond their grasp?

Or will our knowledge survive our machines and carry us to the stars and beyond? Well, my recently deceased laptop did survive six years of almost 24/7 use under every conceivable condition. And I did download the hard drive after I returned home from the conference.

Do you know what part of a house survives the longest? The post holes -- a discolored area in the soil that marks where the builders used timber to frame the structure. In the right light, you can see the dotted lines of discoloration from a low-flying plane. If a hole in the ground can survive millennia, maybe our electronic media can too.

I choose to hope it will.

Jean Marie Ward

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