Verba manent, scripta Volant #1: Nuclear semiotics: the preservation of information for ever.

What has changed with digitalization?

There are just three ontological (i.e. necessary, unavoidable) changes, affecting how we interact with data/information generated/managed through computers, in comparison to how we interact with analogic (i.e. paper based) registrations/inscriptions/documents.

The first two differences are immanent, even with stand alone computers.

The third difference is a consequence of computer networking on closed Local Area Networks (LAN).

A fourth difference is often mentioned, but at more close inspection, it is not an inherent difference between analogic and digital data/information; it is the consequence of (bad) design of IT systems.

The function of documents and of signatures has remained unchanged, if compared to their inherent nature (ontology) in the last 2000 years, even after digitalization.

 Digitalization of data/information changed the following two fundamental aspects of how information is generated, accessed and processed:

Change #1 (ontological): digital data, information, documents were not perceivable/understandable by the humans, without the use of some tools (displays, speakers or printers). The relation between the human person and the information/document became intermediate

Change #2 (ontological): the creation/elaboration of the data/information became much more complex and sophisticated. Data crunching, word processors, made possible for a single user (since the first day of personal computing) to create documents of such a great complexity, that before digitalization, entire teams of dedicated people were needed in order to create them.

Computers interconnected on a Local Area Network (LAN) introduced a third ontological change in the way documentation was generated and shared:

Change #3 (ontological): already with LANs (Local Area Networks) the physical location of the machine keeping the data/information, became irrelevant as long as the IT system keeping such data/information would allow to access them (only) by the person entitled to do so (1).

These are the true ontological changes, that affected digital documents (and digital registrations and digital inscriptions).

There is a fourth change, according to many:

“Change #4”. Many (if not all) users of an IT system had unrestricted access to the same digital data/information, without any possibility for the other users to be aware of it.  A paper document can be accessed only by those who can access the room/drawer/file, where the paper is archived.

Proper design of IT systems managing digital data/information could have easily been designed from scratch in a way to guarantee that
a) access is restricted
b) access (when permitted) is traceable
c) change is restricted
d) change (when permitted) is traceable
exactly as it was (and is) customary with paper based documents. Proper design of the IT system would have made digital data/information more secure and even more difficult to modify, then paper based documents and with a complete audit track of the changes. So in my opinion, there is no “Change #4”, there is “Bad Design #1”: the digital home of digital data had no doors, no locks, everyone had access to the system and was entitled to change its data/information (i.e. recordings, inscriptions, and documents).

The true inherent changes are all related to Change#1, Change#2 and Change#3 and thereof combinations. The modifiability of digital data/information is not inherent to IT systems, it is a consequence of given (bad) design.

Furthermore, IT experts believe in some kind of commonsense about modifiability of data/information, that is plainly wrong, according to semiotics.

The lifecycle of data/information is essential, in order to define its semiotic characteristics:

a)     If there is the need to make available an information for 10.000 years or more, an inscription on some support will not work:
a1. because the sign may fade to the point of being unrecognizable;
a2. because the language will have changed so much, that nobody is able to understand it anymore (languages change to the point to become impossible to understand in a time span between 200 and 800 years)
a3. because the support of the sign may have decayed.
So, according to the Human Interference Task Force, only a properly designed activity ongoing for 10.000 years, can convey the information, not just a sign on a medium.
One of the solutions proposed in order to make information available over 10.000 years is the creation of an “Atomic Priesthood”
In the end, only oral tradition, can bridge an information beyond a millennium. This is why for each religion, it is important to have rites through which to pass its timeless truth (for Christianity, it is the Sunday mass). For information that have to last for millennia, the sign and the medium on which the sign is engraved, have to change necessarily and evolve, with the evolution of the human society!

b)     If we need to provide information for a time span that is within the combined duration of the language and of the medium used, then a static “document” (i.e. registration, inscription or document, in their ontological meaning) can fulfill the task (see my previous post  In this case, the meaning of “static” and “modifiable” are relative to the purpose of the “document” (i.e. document, inscription or recording) (2). Legislation may define the minimum formal requirements of legal documents, depending on their use and relevance: there are requirements on how to write down legislation (parchment is required by some constitutions), on the formal requirements of a contract in written form (all civil law system provide such a definition) or of a handwritten will (most civil law systems provide a definition of holograph testament); there are moreover, requirements on the formal requirements of banknotes and formal identification documents, or passports, or other documents representing equity or obligations of public/private companies, and so on. Proof by witnesses, presumptions or formal documentation are needed in order to provide the full proof of a legal act or of a legal fact, depending on the legal system. The strongest requirements are on a limited set of contracts:
b1. for some it is not only necessary to have a document, but also witnesses attesting the origin and the authenticity of a document, with an interesting mix between written and oral documentation: e.g. marriage;
b2. for some others it is necessary that they are filed and archived at the competent authority (registrar of companies, or secretary of state): e.g. limited liability companies; real estate property.

Nevertheless, no legislation makes the validity of documents, depending on their inherent modifiability. What counts, is that in the few cases where a specific form of the contract is required by the law, the form of documents is compliant to such law.  So it shall be for digital documents.

What has not changed with digitalization?

The function of a document, has not changed. Commonplace is to state that digital documents are not inherently static, like paper based documents, implying that they may not be real documents .

Now, the truth is, that all documents become unreadable after more then 800 years, either because the traces in the support fade away or because the support decays. So what is “static”? A written leaf of paper left in the rain becomes unreadable after few minutes. It is (was) possible to forge passports and even banknotes, so you can figure out how easy it may be to forge a contract written with ink on a normal DIN A4 page!

And if you would keep an archive of chronologically organized papers in a building, whose walls are made of mud, with no doors, no locks, no heating, no ventilation and no maintenance, also such documents would mold, stick together and become useless after just a few years (or just one bad winter, or one rain season).

So the concept of “static document” is very relative and poorly defined, as a small talk commonplaces.

A “static” piece of paper implies quite a lot of organization and technology, that we simply take for granted. But if we would live in an igloo in Iceland or in a hut in the Amazons, such organization and technology would be very hard to get by.

Also digital files, could be protected by default and by design:

a)     of the hardware used to store and manage such files and/or

b)     of the operating system and/or

c)     of access management software and/or

d)     by a combination of the above mentioned technologies.

So the only novelty about digital documents, it is:

a)     that humans are able to perceive them only through some tools (computers) that elaborate them logically (and not analogically, like with magnifying glasses, microscopes or symmetric code-decryption) and

b)     that they are extremely more complex than written paper.

Before ubiquitous computing, even digital documents, lived within the borders of a given single piece of hardware or of a single LAN, so that their origin and their context was defined. This is not true anymore, now that billions of data/information/documents are exchanged every day over open networks.

So, it may be that digital data/information/documents (i.e. recordings, inscriptions, documents) get modified involuntarily or without that the author(s) may be aware of it. But this was true also of all archived documents particularly when the archivist was a different person than its author.

This hypothetical difference between analogic and digital data/information/documents (i.e. digital recordings, inscriptions and documents), in the end, comes down to how a specific digital or analogical document has been archived and preserved, and is not an ontological difference.

The current common sense, that digital documents are inherently dynamic and easily forgeable, if compared to paper based documents, is not an absolute truth. It takes for granted many aspects of the current design of information technology, that may change radically, even in the near future.

The function of the signature, has not changed. It is true, handwritten signatures cannot be affixed to any digital data/information/document (i.e. registration/inscription/document) in order to validate it. But this is hardly new! Humanity is back to square one: digital documents may be marked with some elaborated sign, that has no biometric link to the author of the document (electronic signature), exactly as it was customary from the second Century B.C. to the mid of the nineteen Century A.D.: a time when “scribes”, drafted and signed documents on behalf of the author(s). It was the time before graphology had been invented as a (disputed) pseudoscience by Abbé Michon, who in 1830 became interested in handwriting analysis. He published his findings shortly after founding Société Graphologique in 1871.

For about two millennia, signatures were routinely affixed (in an intermediated way) by slaves or employees of the signer. No more and no less, like when we now add at the end of an email our name and surname, typing them on the keyboard. As with handwritten signatures apposed by the scribes on behalf of the signer, validation of digital registrations/inscriptions/documents, became a highly complex process, in which social engineering and technology ensure the authenticity and the origin authentication of the digital data.

The social engineering part in Rome was the Forum were it was compulsory to close agreements and where it was compulsory to open the seals, sealing the contracts in order to keep their validity and forcefulness. In the Middle Age the Forum was replaced by the Notary’s office.  Today social engineering is provided by contractual law, legal compliance and accountancy rules.

In ancient Rome the technologic part was represented by the sealed wooden tables that were conserved by the parties of the agreement (very similarly to a digital document with an electronic signature!). In the Middle Age the technologic part was the professional organization of archives (with encryption/decryption facilities) by the Notaries and the Clerks of the government. Today the technologies are ERPs, document management systems and PKIs.

From a global and historic perspective, for only less the 150 years over two millennia, there has been the reliance on the ability to verify a handwritten signature, through a graphologist: this is the reason why the presence of witnesses has remained customary in private negotiations and still is mandatory (in some legal systems) for the most relevant notarial contracts.

The biometric handwritten signature (on paper), had the same lifespan of the tail-coat with the white bow tie!


(1) With stand alone personal computers or mainframes, data/information where located in the same room where the hardware was also located; with LANs the information was located in the server/mainframe of the LAN, normally in the same building; later on, when the cost of geographic networks became affordable (i.e. the cost of data transmission was independent from the distance to be covered by the network, and that was, again, around year 2000), it was located somewhere in the same region/nation. From that moment on, it became possible to distribute data/information over a set of different locations.

(2) There is  no inherent lifespan to a given document. A train ticket is relevant and useful for the duration od the trip. But if we want to tax-deduct the cost of that trip, then the ticket is relevant for the time that the tax authority is entitled to verify it. If audit requires to preserve the document for a longer time, then its fiscal relevance, then from an auditing point of view there will be a third lifespan of such ticket.



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