Nothing is forever. According to Microsoft’s estimate, hard drives protect data for five years before they deteriorate. Tape lasts about a decade, while CDs and DVDs can last up to 15 years before their contents risk becoming unreadable.
While we seem to be living in an age of progress – the iPhone can store thousands of songs in your pocket and stream countless more from the cloud – even in the best-case scenario, those songs will deteriorate millennia earlier than the hieroglyphics carved in stone by the ancient Egyptians.
This is the central challenge of the Global Music Vault. Located in Norway, it is part of a cold store dug into the same mountain as the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. While the Seed Vault protects Earth’s Seed Vault, the Global Music Vault aims to preserve sound art for generations to come.
“Here, master music files and irreplaceable music data must be kept in music capsules, protected in the vault, and stored for eternity,” the company explains. Technically, a venture company called Elire Group oversees the vault, while a partnership with Microsoft is testing a new glass storage medium to make this vision possible.
While seeds are biological organisms, having evolved over billions of years to protect their DNA, our man-made storage solutions are far more finicky. A simple magnet can wipe a hard drive, while the plastic covering of a CD can simply rot. Nowhere was the fragility of our recordings clearer than in 2008, when a fire swept through a Universal Studios Hollywood backlot, destroying up to 175,000 master recordings.
As Microsoft moved an increasing share of its business to the cloud, the company sought more reliable and information-dense ways to store data than on hard drives. (After all, the cloud is just a collection of servers, and servers are filled with hard drives that regularly deteriorate.)
One of these solutions developed by the company is currently being tested with the Global Music Vault. Dubbed Project Silica, you could oversimplify the technology as something like a glass hard drive that reads like a CD. It’s a 3-inch by 3-inch platter that can hold 100GB of digital data, or about 20,000 songs, pretty much forever.
Microsoft starts with quartz glass, a high-quality glass that has a symmetrical molecular structure, which makes it much more resistant to high temperatures and pressure than the glass in your home’s windows (and, like all glass, it immune to electromagnetic interference from nuclear weapons). Then, using a femtosecond laser (a laser that can fire for a quadrillionth of a second), Microsoft etches the information as 3D patterns into the glass. Once this data is stored, another laser reads the quartz as machine learning algorithms translate the pattern into music, movies or other digital information.
“The goal is to be able to store cloud-scale archiving and preservation data in glass,” says Ant Rowstron, Distinguished Engineer and Deputy Lab Manager at Microsoft Research in Cambridge. It’s a business goal for Microsoft, but also a practical goal to protect the future of music and other data.
I imagine this vision as something like an internet that is immune to digital rot. The hope is that eventually Project Silica will be able to store “tens of petabytes” of music per year (a petabyte equals 1,000 terabytes and a terabyte equals 1,000 gigabytes), while Microsoft estimates its platters can last up to 10,000 years old.
At this time, the Global Music Vault has not committed to using Microsoft technology exclusively. He’s running a proof-of-concept — which appears to be more of a promotional and fundraising measure than a functional test — by placing trays in his storage with recordings from the Polar Music Prize, the National Library of New Zealand, and the International Library of African Music. . Alongside them, multimedia musician Beatie Wolfe will include a small selection of tracks, including From green to redwhich she wrote as a teenager in response to the climate crisis.
As Wolfe explains, the vault seems apt given the uncertainty of our environmental and political future, but its very permanence also addresses the more practical concerns of musicians around the world, who feel belittled in the age. of the Internet and fear that their contributions will disappear.
“I think the music industry has really created a worthless appreciation of music,” says Wolfe. “Music has become so devalued in the age of streaming, even more than it was in the age of iTunes, and the music industry has become so focused on commodifying this form of music. ‘art, that having a project like this reminds us of the long-term value of music to our species. To really preserve that is very much in line with what I believe.