It turns out that the markings on the stone were very old: Studies by scientists and historians found that the stones had been inscribed during the Hellenistic period of the Egyptian Empire, around 196BC – making them at least 2200 years old.
Subsequently named the “Rosetta Stone”, it was unusual in that it had inscriptions in two languages, written in three scripts. The first part of the text was written in the ancient Egyptian language, using hieroglyphic and then Demotic scripts; while the second was written in Ancient Greek.
After decades of study, it was found that the text was a royal decree by King Ptolemy V Epiphanes on his ascension to the throne.
Later, two more stones were found, which were established to be at least 40 years older than the first.
The only way we were able to learn from the stones was because, more than two millennia later, they were well-preserved and still perfectly readable. We will never know if the original writers intended the stones to survive this long; the fact remains that they did, and we know so much more about those people, thanks to that.
This raises a huge, uncomfortable question about modern technology: A thousand years from now, what will remain of our legacy?
We are living in an age never before experienced in human history, an age of rapid technological advancement, an information age – one where more data is being generated in a day than most people saw in their lifetimes a century ago.
Almost all the new works of knowledge we are generating during this era are in digital format – online posts, videos and audio. Many scientific works, literary masterpieces and the like, are going digital-only.
Not only that, but we pride ourselves on “digitising” old works from the age before technology. Books, scientific works, pictures and music sheets are now available in digital format, and can be accessed at the touch of the button from anywhere in the world.
Whereas we once had bookshelves filled with books, we are now able to store our collections on a single device.
There was a time we kept albums to preserve our family histories in pictures. Stacks of video cassettes held priceless family memories. Today, all that is digital.
The question is: How long will all this valuable information survive?
The short answer is, not very long. Modern storage media are notoriously short-lived, and will hold data for no longer than a couple of years. Although we’ve made a lot of progress since the days of floppy disks and video cassettes, current “long-term” storage media like CDs, DVDs and external hard disks are still extremely fragile and can be wiped out in seconds.
And if the media still remains intact after a number of years, there is yet another danger; the technology to read those media will no longer exist. As an example, if you found yourself in possession of a floppy disk with information you needed to retrieve, how would you access it today? It would be nearly impossible.
I recall having written dozens of computer programs as a kid, some of which were really good. Today, all I have left are my physical, printed manuals and guides – my actual work is lost forever.
How can we prevent this?
Some might say that cloud backups are the answer. Cloud storage is great, in case your devices falls into the toilet or you upgrade. But that still doesn’t answer the big question: How long will it last?
What if your cloud hosting company disappears? What happens to our data? There is no guarantee that any company will last for another decade, particularly in these disruptive times when new businesses are replacing old ones all the time.
The sad reality is that no matter what form of modern digital storage we use, there is no guarantee our information will survive more than a couple of decades – let alone millennia like the Rosetta Stones or other ancient stone writings.
And as we become ever-more digital, this poses a huge danger to the preservation of our valuable information and, in the long term, to the preservation of our knowledge base and culture.
A thousand years in the future, what will people know about our amazing, vibrant and technologically advanced culture?
If they find our devices, CDs and hard disks, will those media still preserve the valuable data they once held a millennium ago? Will the people of that time even have the technology to read those media?