Surprise-computerized data can decay before you know it

DISKS AT RISK - You thought your CD-ROMs were going to last forever? Dream on

Science & Technology

Up to 20% of the information carefully collected on Jet Propulsion Laboratory computers during NASA'S 1976 Viking mission to Mars has been lost. Some POW and MIA records and casualty counts from the Vietnam War, stored on Defense Dept. computers, can no longer be read. And at Pennsylvania State University, all but 14 of some 3,000 computer files containing student records and school history are no longer accessible because of missing or outmoded software. What's going on? The world is in a headlong rush to go digital. From Tokyo to Tampa, schools, libraries, factories, and churches are forking over great sums to computerize everything from Johnny's latest math scores to Aunt Hattie's dental records. Computers are supposed to help us manage this information explosion by storing oceans of data that, at some later date, can be recalled at the click of a mouse.

Trouble is, all these bits of information are piling up so fast that hardly anybody is thinking about saving them. By 2000, Forrester Research Inc. estimates, one of every three Americans will be online. What's more, half to three-quarters of the data produced each day will be ""born digital"- that is, it will never have existed on paper. Says Eric Almasey, a digital media expert at Mercer Management Consulting: "We're not just doubling amounts of electronic data every six months, we're quadrupling it." The Information Age is creating a digital dilemma. For years, computer scientists told us that digital Is and Os could last forever. But now, we're discovering that the media we're using to carry our precious information on into the future are turning out to be far from eternal-so fragile, in fact, that some might not last through the decade. More is at risk than government and corporate records. The danger extends to cultural legacies: new music, early drafts of literature, and academic works originate in digital form-without hard copies. HOUSTON CALLING. To be sure, all our information is not in jeopardy. There are some solutions, even new software to back up data on special paper disks. But there's no quick fix. The data lost from the Viking tta Mars mission, for example, was trapped on decaying digital magnetic tape, forcing NASA to call mission specialists out of retirement to help the agency reconstruct key data. "Digital information lasts forever, or five years- whichever comes first," says Jeff Rothenberg, senior computer scientist at RAND Corp. Forget forever. Under less-than-optimal storage conditions, digital tapes and disks, including CD-ROMS and optical drives, might deteriorate about as fast as newsprint-in 5 to 10 years. Tests by the National Media Lab, a St. Paul (Minn.)-based government and industry consortium, show that tapes might preserve data for a decade, depending on storage conditions. Disks-whether CD-ROMS used for games or the type used by some companies to store pension plans-may become unreadable in five years.

For consumers, the biggest worry is CD-ROMS. Unlike paper records, CD-ROMS often don't show decay until it's too late. Experts are just beginning to realize that stray magnetic fields, oxidation, humidity, and material decay can quickly erase the information stored on them. Says Robert Stein, founder of New York-based Voyager Co., which makes commercial CD-ROM books and games: