Are We in a Digital Information Dark Age Right Now ?

Dark Ages
Historical Period

The period in European history following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire from about A.D. 500 to 1000. The Dark Ages saw cultural, economic and technological decline.

The reference to ‘dark’ derives from the paucity of written historical documentation from this period leading to a certain lack of accurate information about this time period.

We are living in an age when the amount of data being collected every minute from the daily lives of those on the planet has never been greater. We are tracked via CCTV, by our Social Media posts, by the emails we send and the purchases we make. What is more, access to, and even being the publisher of, information has never been easier. It literally is at our fingertips. So how could we be in a ‘Digital Information Dark Age’?

The answer is quite simple – if we’re producing less and less physical artifacts like printed documents and photographs – who is storing the new electronic artifacts and how will they be made available to future historians and archaeologists when they maybe lost, destroyed or unreadable, as formats and e-readers of the information evolve and change?

What is the Digital Dark Age?

‘Bit rot’ in a New Dark Age

Vint Cerf, a Google vice-president, first mooted this idea in February 2015 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science science conference in San Jose.

Old formats of documents that we’ve created or presentations may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backwards compatibility is not always guaranteed

Rather than a world where longevity is a given, Cerf forsees a scenario where future generations will have little or no record of the 21st Century. Cerf fears a “digital dark age” in which the rapid evolution of technology quickly makes storage formats obsolete thanks to a phenomenon he calls “bit rot”.

What is ‘bit rot’?

What Cerf coined as “bit rot” is a process by which the mechanisms for accessing a digital file are lost, rending that file useless junk. A big part of the problem is the use of closed file formats that require specific software to read those files.

For instance, if you have memoirs written over the last decade stored in a Microsoft Office .doc file from Word or a similar program, that file is easily readable today with a multitude of programs – not all of them made by Microsoft. But the .doc file is a proprietary file format made and licensed by Microsoft.

Should Microsoft choose to stop supporting it and prevented other software from using the format, all those documents would be unreadable once the last version of the old software that could read them no longer runs on newer computers.

In addition to software, ther’s also a hardware problem, for instance in 1985, not even Bill Gates knew that computers would not feature 5.25 inch floppy disk drives forever.

Lastly you have the problem of access by future generations to these files when you consider that many digital files are increasingly NOT being stored locally but in the cloud and are therfore locked away on these company’s servers. Some like Facebook and Google allow users to export those files, but there may come a time when those companies fold and with them go a user’s digital memories.

Digital Vellum

[vel-uh m]

Vellum (derived from the Latin word vitulinum meaning “made from calf”) is a parchment made from calf skin. It is prepared for writing or printing on, to produce single pages, scrolls, codices or books.

During the Middle Ages most of the finer sorts of manuscripts, whether illuminated or not, were written on vellum.

Rather appropriately, Cerf’s proposed solution is something he calls “digital vellum”—essentially, a tool for preserving old technologies so that even obsolete files can be recovered.

Very simply the idea is …

to preserve every piece of software and hardware (together) so that it never becomes obsolete – just like what happens in a museum – but in digital form, in servers in the cloud.

If his idea works, the memories we hold so dear could be accessible for generations to come.

The solution is to take an X-ray snapshot of the content and the application and the operating system together, with a description of the machine that it runs on, and preserve that for long periods of time. And that digital snapshot will recreate the past in the future.

Below is a fascinating video of Vint Cerf lecturing on Digital Velum at Carnegie Mellon University *

[*beware it’s over an hour long – but it’s worth it as you also get a bonus lecture on the ‘Expansion of the Internet into the Solar System’]

So, maybe if you really want to preserve your own family history for posterity and future generations and you need to start thinking about printing out all those documents and photographs after all.

Author: Robert

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