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8 ways sci-fi imagines data storage

We can remember it for you wholesale. But we probably prefer to use today's storage technology, at least for now.

Storage is possibly the least exciting part of computing, but it's oh so essential. After all, those who do not "Rekall" the past are doomed to recompute it.

Yet, storage is a staple of both science and science fiction, and forms the basis, or a crucial component, of many a piece of speculative fiction. Looking back to look forward is always educational, or at least entertaining, so here are eight past visions of the storage future that either passed their error checks or succumbed to bit rot.

Wetware

Why store vast quantities of data on a device when you can just slap it into someone's head?

In this SF-storage scheme, information is lodged directly into the noggins of unsuspecting—and therefore nonconsenting—humans, as is the case with Capt. Picard in "The Inner Light" episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation," and Chuck Bartowski in the series "Chuck," the recipient of "the Intersect."

Also of note is the 9-year-old protagonist of the British 1968-69 supermarionation show "Joe 90," who has skills and information uploaded to his brain via his father's ethically unsupervised invention. I'm placing Joe in a list of nonconsenting humans, because 9-year-olds don't have consent. Go to hell and/or jail, Joe's dad.

In addition, data is uploaded into the brains of welcoming humans, as is the case of Neo in "The Matrix" and the dolls of "Dollhouse." Then there's Dr. Morbius in "Forbidden Planet." Do you want monsters from the id? Because using humans as storage devices is how you get monsters from the id.

But only Johnny Mnemonic carries a physical storage system embedded in his brain, as a human is a more trusted and secure transport than a mere computer in writer William Gibson's world. Maybe, but we don't want to be him during airport security checks.

Why 21st century storage is superior

Brains ain't nothin' but squishy bits. And squishy bits are famous for being an imperfect storage medium that often lets emotions alter the information on the way in or way out. You also can't back up humans—at least not yet.

Computer storage (whether on premises or in the cloud) is based on silicon chips. And while chips are not infallible, replicating storage easily and transparently means you're not vulnerable to any one server deciding that today it's just not going to talk to you or putting on a trench coat and questioning the existence of spoons.

 

Brute-force memory

The human brain is capable of amazing feats of memorization. It comes with an inference and cognition engine designed to extrapolate results from the stored information. The human brain is also great at making deductions based on incomplete information; it is, after all, a neural network, albeit one that gets hung over and calls in sick after a night of questionable life choices.

Winston Smith memorized parts of books in "1984." A network of humans remembered entire books in "Fahrenheit 451." Unlike the characters in the section above, none of these people magically absorbed and retained knowledge. Instead, they had to use brainpower. Yes, this is just another form of wetware, only we're using the original APIs for data transfer, with all the disadvantages (it's inefficient and error-prone) and advantages (it's not banned by ethics committees).

A caveat: My first thought was that the mentats of "Dune," with their ability to memorize and calculate, would fit in this category. But the mentat mantra spells it out: "It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stain, the stain becomes a warning." This means they memorize with the help of the juice of sapho…and that screenplay writer and director David Lynch lied to us.

These sci-fi repositories of knowledge don't have to look to the future to remember books. They can just study the way current memory champions do, with a technique known as a memory palace.

Why 21st century storage is superior

A human brain can store 1 petabyte of data. Cloud-storage companies can offer you as many petabytes as you want, as long as you pay for it. Just as Philip K. Dick predicted, they can remember it for you wholesale.

Non-cloud-based computers

HAL 9000, the server room in the "Black Mirror" episode "San Junipero," and R2-D2 and the Imperial Archive planet Scariff in "Rogue One" all served as on-premise storage devices for data and Death Star plans alike. Keeping your data on your home computer or your own backup device has been a time-honored tradition since the advent of the personal computer. Just ignore the cold paranoia over what might happen if your systems go down or the possibility you're locked out through accident, malice, or unexpectedly self-aware AI.

With these science fiction computers/droids, which serve as repositories of facts, personalities, and songs like "Bicycle Built for Two," you have to physically access them to get the information you need.

At least, we hope that's true of the servers of San Junipero, which stores personalities. I don't want to imagine what would happen to them if some malign hacker decides to introduce the modern world into the relatively innocent days of 1987.

Why 21st century storage is superior

Physical security is so last decade. Yes, there are still some cases where isolated or even "air gapped" offline storage is the way to go, and yes, there are on-premises cloud services. But for the most part, you don't need to worry about physical access to your company's knowledge base.

Cloud storage is the opposite of this in every significant way; your data is physically distributed across multiple servers, even multiple data centers. You need connectivity only so you can reach it when you need to. Having sensitive data in the cloud needn't be a problem either, so long as you encrypt it and keep the private keys actually private. Add API keys for access so you can control who has access on an individual basis, and you never have to worry about someone broadcasting your secret plans to the nearest passing rebel flagship.

Even better, you don't need to worry about R2-D2 tricking you into removing its restraining bolt.

The written word

The classic novel "A Canticle for Leibowitz" and the adequate "Star Trek: Voyager" episode "Unforgettable" have one unusual aspect in common: their preferred method of data storage. In both cases, the characters keep their data the old old-fashioned way: the written word. In "Voyager," Chakotay wrote down memories of a lover before he could forget her; in "A Canticle for Leibowitz," Leibowitz wrote a shopping list that became sacred text.

While writing is an excellent method of communication, it wasn't until print and mass-produced books found their ways into the hands of the public that the written word started political and religious revolutions. But the beloved book has its very real flaws. For example, older tomes are subject to decay and can be a source of allergens. Books are also easily damaged by water, fire, and cats.

Why 21st century storage is superior

Books are wonderful, but there are only so many you can carry them before you herniate a disc. You can store the text from all 56 terabytes' worth of books in the cloud and you wouldn't even have to wonder if your insurance will pay for your laparoscopic surgery. Thanks, cloud storage!

Crystals

The idea of storing data in a lattice, where information can perhaps be splashed out in prism form, is a mesmerizing one, even if it's pure science fiction. Holocrons and datacrons in "Star Wars." Data crystals in "Babylon 5." The Asgard's memory crystals in "Stargate." Superman's memory crystals that contain most of the knowledge of the Kryptonians, plus daddy issues.

But crystal computing may soon be shifting out of the genre of fiction. Researchers in Australia are encoding nano-size crystals with data using laser light. These lab-proven nanocrystals are also energy efficient and can store a petabyte's worth of data in a small cube.

It doesn't get more sci-fi than that. And it's all real.

Why 21st century storage is superior

The common factor with all crystal-based storage mediums seems to be how attractively they shatter when you drop them. Dramatically speaking, if a data crystal of some kind makes an appearance, its fragility is likely to be a plot point. Future tech it may be, but it's still subject to the same laws of Murphy as any other technology. So, this isn't so much an alternative to the cloud as it is a better cloud full of crystals. From your point of view, better and faster storage is nice, but it's an implementation detail that doesn't matter to you, so long as nobody drops it.

Nanocrystal technology has yet to make the leap from the lab. When it does, nanocrystals could supplant silicon as the backbone of cloud-based storage. After all, it worked for the Kryptonians.

Real-world storage

Even though "Lost in Space" was set in 1997, the show uses punch cards, just as programmers did when it was filmed in 1965-1968. The tapes in Margaret Atwood's book "The Handmaid's Tale" are the same kind of cassette tapes we played in our decks circa 1985. A server room in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" isn't very different from current server rooms, albeit terribly designed ones.

These were all excellent methods of storage for their time and place. But since cloud storage became ubiquitous in the early 2010s, there's no reason to not store your old emails from former lovers in a place where you can access them after your third glass of white wine.

Why 21st century storage is superior

Well, perhaps not. Software-defined storage is the most recent iteration of storage, though like the cloud itself, it doesn't change storage technology, just the way existing storage mediums are used. In the 22nd century, we'll be writing articles about why software-defined storage is inferior to Kryptonian crystal technology.

Old new-fashioned storage

The absolute coolest data storage method in sci-fi came courtesy of the 2004-2008 animated series "The Batman." In the episode "Artifacts," Mr. Freeze has made plans to awaken from cryogenic sleep 1,000 years in the future. Batman knew he had to protect Gotham, even though he would be dead. So Batman carved a recipe for antifreeze into a wall...

...and because he knew future computers wouldn't be able to read his code, he wrote the formula entirely in binary.

That's not just smart. That's super-smart.

Why 21st century storage is superior

Nothing is superior to Batman.

Random storage

Not all data storage methods are held to the confines of computers: "The Wire." "The Outer Limits" episode "Demon with a Glass Hand." The Doctor's sonic screwdriver in "The Silence in the Library" and "The Forest of the Dead." The grain in the "Black Mirror" episode "The Entire History of You."

It's a good thing, too. Science fiction frequently acts as a bellwether for technology. If we didn't have prognosticators to imagine how cool these yet-to-be-invented inventions would be, we wouldn't have submarines, cell phones, or QuickTime.

Why 21st century storage is superior

Unique single-purpose storage systems sound cool and exciting, but none of these methods are consistent. Storage shouldn't be special; it should be boring. It's what you do with it that counts. That's what cloud storage does: It provides uninterrupted access to your data whenever you and your users need it.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds." But reliability is the stuff on which empires, utopias, and grand federations are built.

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.