The key to eternal life

Like the secular and sacred before him, reader Christopher Hosford seeks the key to eternal life. He writes:

Macworld regularly offers stories and reviews on word processing and text-editing software, always focusing on features. But as a writer I’m concerned about format longevity. I want my article documents and notes to last a long time—forever, in fact—but don’t know which formats will last the test of time. Should I save in .doc? What about .txt? Currently, I’m writing and saving everything in .rtf, thinking this is a universal standard. But of course there’s .pages and .cwk, and now I’ve become aware of the new open source format (.odf) and .xml. Help! Which format looks like it will really last, so that 50 years from now I’ll be able to access my documents written waaaay back when?

Plain text (.txt) is your best bet as it’s stood the test of time. You can unearth documents saved as plain text 20 years ago and they’ll open today. The downside of plain text is that you get the barest formatting—line breaks and little else. So your words will likely be there but they won’t be presented in an attractive package.

I’m also going to put my money on .pdf. And I will for this important reason: It’s what governments use for countless forms. The wheels of bureaucracy turn extremely slowly (when they turn at all or in a forward direction) and once a bakillion pieces of government paperwork have been converted to pdf it’s going to take a major miracle to displace pdf for a new format.

Finally, if your words are that important to you may I suggest that you do as the audio archivists do and save them in physical form?

Said audio archivists sought a way to preserve the earth’s music and assorted noises so that it could be heard centuries from now. They considered various digital formats until some bright individual offered, “Um, so has anyone here seen ‘Planet of the Apes?’ I mean, suppose the monkeys do take over, civilization reverts to an agrarian society—except for the enslaving Charleton Heston bit—and our bananatarian descendants can’t enjoy “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” because they don’t have the means to decrypt it?”

“Hmm,” they thought. And then they decided to spin it old school and put music on record discs and cylinders because the media can be heard by scraping a thorn through the grooves, no electricity required.

I’m not anxious to see more trees slaughtered than necessary, but you might want to take your very best work, print it on archival stock paper with similarly archival ink, and place it in a protective binder or case (waterproof if you live by what will eventually no longer be the coast). It may not be the sexiest way to preserve your ideas but it’s a system that worked well for the cave-dwelling Og and Ug all those millennia ago.

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