Ultimate open-source doomsday safeguard? Or fodder for the post-apocalyptic ‘graffitists of Pompeii?’ Github makes long-delayed 21TB deposit in Svalbard’s Arctic World Archive

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A set of film strips almost exactly 200 kilometers long is how we’ll share amazing technical wonders such as Bitcoin and Netflix with civilizations 1,000 years from now, at least in a scenario envisioned by GitHub after depositing 21 terabytes of “preserved” open-source software in Svalbard’s Arctic World Archive.

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A Pole Position employee uses a forklift to transfer digital film with open-source software code into the Arctic World Archive on July 8. Photo courtesy of Github.

The deposit in the archive inside Mine 3 that opened in 2017 and stores specialized digital filmstrips with everything from manuscripts from the Vatican Library to art by master artists of all eras occurred months later than planned due to restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. But the reopening of Norway’s and Svalbard’s borders to many European countries this week allowed two pallets open-source code transferred to film to be shipped and placed in the mine on a mountainside several hundred meters from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

“Over the last several months, our archive partners Piql, wrote 21TB of repository data to 186 reels of piqlFilm (digital photosensitive archival film),” wrote Julia Metcalf, GitHub’s director of strategic programs, in a post on the company’s official blog Thursday. “Our original plan was for our team to fly to Norway and personally escort the world’s open source code to the Arctic, but as the world continues to endure a global pandemic, we had to adjust our plans. We stayed in close contact with our partners, waiting for the time when it was safe for them to travel to Svalbard. We’re happy to report that the code was successfully deposited in the Arctic Code Vault on July 8, 2020.”

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Photo courtesy of GitHub.

The deposit includes code submitted to GitHub as of Feb. 1 of this year. Github, in a separate post detailing its software preservation efforts, listed 40 “top projects” whose code now part of its archive deposit, including key parts of Microsoft, Facebook, WordPress, online applications, and programming languages and operating systems.

While technology to read data will obviously be different 1,000 years from now (heck, even five years ago, as any fan of DVDs knows), each reel of GotHub film includes a “read-me” guide explaining the purpose and technical details of the software.

But while preserving data in all forms is generally hailed as a positive goal, even if Piql’s digital film approach is seen as a somewhat eccentric project among the many long-term formats being used and tested, it seems keeping the work of coders dedicated to the concept of open-source software for the modern world is prompting at least one questioning voice.

Dan Maloney, a contributor at the website Hackday, wrote in a Sunday post titled “Svalbard,” which focuses mostly on hackers who might be interested in signing up for the U.S. military’s first-ever “bug bounty program,” raised a somewhat alarmist warning for those who do.

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Canisters of digital film encoded with open-source software code are placed in a cold container for long storage in the Arctic World Archive. Photo courtesy of GitHub.

“If you can’t stand the idea that future archaeologists may someday pore over your code in an attempt to understand the digital lives of their long-dead forebears, then you might want to skip this story about how GitHub shipped 21 terabytes of open-source code to cold storage,” he wrote. “The destination for the data, contained on reels of archive film and shipped on two pallets, is the world’s long-term memory: the Artic World Archive on the island of Svalbard. Perhaps better known for the Svalbard Seed Vault, where the genetic diversity of the world’s plants is stored, the Artic Code Vault is in a nearby abandoned coal mine and set deep within the permafrost.”

“The rationale for making the effort to preserve code makes for some interesting reading, but we can’t help but feel that like the graffitists of Pompeii, if we’d known someone would be reading this stuff in a thousand years, we might have edited out a few things.”