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A Digital Dark Age: Are We on The Brink?

Imagine a catastrophic global electromagnetic storm cripples Earth’s digital information infrastructure. Sure, this may be a hackneyed conspiracy theory developed with apocalyptic imaginations, trumpeted by a nineties-era website, and supported by a healthy dose of pseudoscience–but it offers an intriguing thought experiment for what would happen if our digital records were suddenly and irrevocably destroyed. What documentary evidence would remain to future historians attempting to study our current civilization?

Digital Dark Age

Digital Decay

Even in the absence of an apocalypse scenario, there remains a more likely possibility that data can be trapped on obsolete technology.

A prime example is the 5 inch floppy disc. As that medium fades further into disuse, it becomes more difficult (and maybe even impossible) to access the data stored in that format. Essentially, that data is lost to the historical record. Like physical objects, digital information can decay over time. Obscure and forgotten websites disappear every day, and with them, a small thread of our culture is lost to history.

As our cultural artifacts shift from paper to .doc; vinyl records to .mp3; film to .jpg, we leave fewer and fewer physical objects in the documentary record. Before the advent of digital photography, the pictures documenting our lives were developed, printed out, and stuffed into photo albums. Now, most everyday snapshots remain digital, shared on Facebook, sent via MMS to friends, and stored on hard drives.

A good friend of mine once recounted how his grandmother had tried to print off Facebook. While this seems an absurd anecdote, maybe she had it right, in terms of cultural heritage preservation.  Facebook won’t last forever, and neither will all the pictures and social data contained on those servers.images floppy adlininc.com

Another Dark Age?

We refer to the period of roughly the sixth through the thirteenth centuries as the “Dark Ages” of European history due to the relative scarcity of documentary evidence from their culture.

As a result of our current reliance on ephemeral data, are we entering a Digital Dark Age?

Will the rise of digital culture greatly diminish the written record in artifactual evidence?

I’m not suggesting that physical records will be completely absent from the historical record, because we still produce great quantities of printed materials. However, archival scarcity could foreseeably be an unintended side effect of rampant digitization.

Thirty-first century historians will have no doubt that the digital world had a profound impact on our lives, but the record of that has the potential to be lost or at least incomplete.

Elements of digital visual culture have crossed into our analog lives (a phenomenon documented by the fascinating blog, The New Aesthetic), creating a shadow of the memes and modes of our digital lives. As data trapped in obsolete technologies becomes unavailable for future historians, we face the possibility of losing large portions of our history to digital decay and leaving these digital-analog placeholders.

rosetta disc
rosettaproject.org

Looking to the Future

Two organizations are actively working to mitigate the impact of the Digital Dark Age.

The Internet Archive compiles periodic digital snapshots of the web for its Wayback Machine, creating a historical record of internet content throughout its history. While this data would not survive an apocalypse scenario, it combats the digital decay of dead links and disappearing content.

The Long Now takes another angle on the future of history and the Digital Dark Age.  In addition to its more symbolic efforts—like adding a zero to dates (“02013” is written in anticipation of the year 10,000 problem) or building a clock that “ticks once a year, bongs once a century, and the cuckoo comes out every millennium”—The Long Now Foundation pursues more direct solutions.

Their “Long Now Salon” will contain a library that would function as

a manual for civilization, 3,500 volumes that could be used to rebuild civilization.  Their “Rosetta Project” produced a microscopically etched disc containing “over 13,000 pages of information on over 1,500 human languages.”  More than anything, The Long Now has started an important conversation about the long term fate of our digital heritage.

httpv://vimeo.com/59207751

As students of information science, we can appreciate the extent to which digital data defines our culture.  The value of digital records are clear, but we need to consider the eventual fate of these artifacts.  It is foolish to think that every artifact from our civilization can and should be preserved, but I for one find it troubling to think that vast portions of the record of our society could be deleted from the future.

Looking for more blog entries on the Digital Dark Age?  Check out The Long Now’s blog archive. What do you think about the concept of a Digital Dark Age? Is this a reasonable concern?  If it is, how can we mitigate its effects? Leave your comments here!

Ryan Perry

I am a second-year graduate student pursuing a Masters in Library & Information Science degree at Syracuse University's iSchool. My interests revolve around digital technologies, music, disc golf, hashing, and craft beer. I received a MA in American Cultural History from the University of Rochester and I hold down a night job as a live sound engineer. Find me on Twitter @unwordedly.

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