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A world without records

Does your records retention policy start from a position of saving everything forever, then decide what to throw away? Would it be easier to start at the other extreme: save nothing, ever?

I received an e-mail recently from my good friend and book co-author Chris Stakutis, who is also vice president of emerging technology at CA.

Chris can have very different ways of looking at things, a quality that makes him well-suited for his job. The e-mail I'm reprinting below (with a few edits for brevity) is a case in point.

From time to time, one of the organizations that specializes in counting things speculates that in the next five years, humans will generate many yottabytes of data. Here's an example from IDC. (Yes, you can yotta yotta data.) These pronouncements are always great news for storage vendors. However, as an IT professional, Chris would ask not how you would store all that data, but why you would need to store it at all.

In enterprise IT, it is common to find storage administrators who will tell you that the company's default position in regard to data retention is to always store everything forever. Since that policy is hard if not impossible to sustain, enterprises have recently devised policies that allow them to throw some of it away.

Suppose, however, that you were to start from the opposite side of the proposition--never save anything, ever. One could start there and then create policies around what to save. Here's what Chris says on the matter:

The planet is especially well designed to naturally recycle its own materials. A specimen of some sort perishes, and The System is busy at work to redeploy the basic materials for future growth. In very rare cases, a specimen will leave an indentation of itself behind--a fossil--a "record" if you will. This disturbs the natural order of things. It presents "data" about the past that now needs to be factored with the present. For billions of years, these anomalous records of the past were properly overlooked and did not disrupt the grand plans for the future, thankfully.

A bird nesting in the eaves of grand canyon wall benefits from the angle of the warming sun and the abundance of nearby berries. The history of ice ages and earthquakes and past Indian tribes recorded on the rock wall are of no care.

Then come the humans. We draw on rocks at first, then turn glyphs into words, then transpose onto leaves loosely bound in what we now recognize as books. Worse yet, we invent photography and can capture an instant of time and review it over and over again and potentially re-live it through motion pictures. We have gone from a universe that only deals with re-growth and the future to one that is becoming obsessed with the past.

Enter computers and digital records. Trillions of terabytes of data of the past, and growing without bound. It's not information anymore and to say it is noise is too polite.

Back to fossils. Every once in a while, some researcher finds some especially curious fossil buried deep in the ocean floor. Or, the skeletal remains of some early primate high in the mountains of Western China. A single primate skeleton can fascinate scientists for years. We give him a name. We pick a gender. We assign stories of his troubled life as told by the microscopically visible bone fractures, and we even infer his preferred diet based on remnants of teeth and jaw structure. We might even be so bold to guess his social habits--from a single skeleton.

Now, picture walking through those same mountains and with every step we crunch thousands of skeletal remains covering millions of years. The crunching is deafening. What can be learned from trillions of primate skeletons? In fact, their history now becomes a present challenge--that of stepping over them to get to a destination.

It's hard to believe that recording history in totality is essential to our evolution. Is it not unnatural and [doesn't it] mire us in our ways? What if all the effort given today to recording our past was put towards building our future?