A Digital Dark Age?


This week on Facebook:  Last week was not referring to the digital dark age but rather to the coming dark age predicted, in my mind,  in a very large part to the philosophies of Thomas Malthus and Professor Albert Bartlett. I wrote about Thomas Malthus in  Malthus and Growth and mentioning both Malthus and Bartlett in Cassandra & Growth, both of which were posted early last year. 

The articles that follow were produced as a response to the well publicised remarks of  Vinton Cerf in which he predicted a digital dark age. That digital data storage is a problem that clearly needs to be addressed¹ is not disputed, perhaps the real question is just how much of this digitised information is to be retained and who is to decide on this retention. Vin Cerf has a point as shown in the following two videos: the first video suggesting a coming ‘digital dark age’, while the second video shows that data retention is possible despite Cerf’s remarks. The second video show that the retention of digitised data is at a financial cost that is presently unaffordable to most.

I wrote in my post ‘From A Dark Age to Enlightenment?’ that I believed we were entering another dark age in which there will be an abundance of information about the period and a dearth of truth. This was based on the retention of digitised information, if Vin Cerf is right then I am wrong, however perhaps the archivists in my article are right (5). In any event I am sure that an economically viable solution to the retention of digitised data will be found. When it is, the retention and choice of digitised data for storage purposes remains.

There is also an assumption being made that a digital dark age applies to relevant data. I have alluded to this, particularly with reference to the collectors of data. Perhaps the one thing that is different from this age to any other is the ability of the individual express their thoughts via social media. So what does a digital dark age mean? It’s unlikely to mean that the storage or conversion, by whatever means is deemed necessary, is going to impact on the retention of what is thought (by politicians especially) to be ‘important’ data. Yet isn’t the social media expressing the views of ordinary people, however biased they may be, something that can only be surmised about the past?

It is highly likely to impact on the new world of personal data, particularly that of social media, most of which actually is dross yet making the question of ‘important data’ more difficult to assess. So the question of who decides and in what form digital data formed in this way is retained recurs. What may be considered dross may be the equivalent of a heap of ancient rubbish, providing clues for future generations on the lives of past generations. Perhaps the answer has already been found in cloud storage, a sort of cryogenic storage for personal data after death. Of course this form of digital data storage will come at a price, even if some new and much simplified search methodology is found. Most personal data is likely to be categorised as future dross, especially by professional archivists, friends and family.


1. Scientists warn we may be creating a ‘digital dark age’: Unlike in previous decades, no physical record exists these days for much of the digital material we own. Your old CDs, for example, will not last more than a couple of decades. This worries archivists and archaeologists and presents a knotty technological challenge. Computer and data specialists refer to this era of lost data as the “digital dark ages.” Other experts call the 21st century an “informational black hole,” because the digital information we are creating right now may not be readable by machines and software programs of the future. All that data, they worry — our century’s digital history — is at risk of never being recoverable.

2. Avoiding a Digital Dark Age: Over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st, an increasing proportion of the information we create and use has been in the form of digital data. Many (most?) of us have given up writing messages on paper, instead adopting electronic formats, and have exchanged film-based photographic cameras for digital ones. Will those precious family photographs and letters—that is, email messages—created today survive for future generations, or will they suffer a sad fate like my backup floppy disks? It seems unavoidable that most of the data in our future will be digital, so it behooves us to understand how to manage and preserve digital data so we can avoid what some have called the “digital dark age.” This is the idea—or fear!—that if we cannot learn to explicitly save our digital data, we will lose that data and, with it, the record that future generations might use to remember and understand us.

3. We Need to Act to Prevent a Digital ‘Dark Age’: As we evolve into a data society, we have to think seriously about what it means to preserve data for future generations. Good storage alone won’t work. Every file is read by some application, and those applications evolve rapidly as do the systems they depend on to run.

4. A ‘digital dark age’ could help us let go of the past: It’s true that, should a mass of digital material be lost to an unplugged ether, our collective memory of the early 21st century – and the understanding for those who come after us – could be obscured. But for individuals, might this be a good thing? Perhaps not being able to have at our fingertips a bundle of digital memories is a psychological positive; a boon for mental health.

5. There Will Be No Digital Dark Age: As is often the case with news media, there is a noticeable absence in the way the story is framed. Read the tagline again. What is missing? It seems that the journalist ignores the fact that historians have intermediaries called archivists who not only select and aggregate data for the future but who have also been heavily engaged in the question of digital preservation and digital acquisition since at least the 1980s. We, as archivists, are not absent, and have not been absent from the action. We are, however, hidden in the public narrative.


Referenced Articles & Books:

  • A text subscript above and preceding the title here, refers to a book, pdf, podcast, video, slide show and a download that is usually free.
  • Brackets containing a number e.g. (1) are used above to reference a particular article (1-5).
  • A long read url* is followed by an asterisk.
  • Occasionally an Open University (OU) free course is cited.
  • JSTOR lets you set up a free account allowing you to have 6 (interchangeable) books stored that you can read online.

¹Challenges in the Preservation of Electronic Information (pdf): The tenor of our time appears to regard history as having ended, with pronouncements from many techno-pundits claiming that the Internet is revolutionary and changes everything. We seem at times, to be living in what Umberto Eco has called an “epoch of forgetting.” Within this hyperbolic environment of technology euphoria, there is a constant, albeit weaker, call among information professionals for a more sustained thinking about the impacts of the new technologies on society. One of these impacts is how we are to preserve the historic record in an electronic era where change and speed is valued more highly that conservation and longevity.

2 responses to “A Digital Dark Age?

  1. Peter Oct 2, 2018 at 06:46

    I agree that the ‘internet’ is (and can be) ‘an information junk yard’ vallypee, but it can also be quite liberating in that it allows the hoi-palloi to express themselves. The difficulty comes (to my mind) in trying to find a ‘balanced’ viewpoint — then the world doesn’t hold ‘balanced’ views.

    Thanks for your comment.

    Like

  2. vallypee Oct 1, 2018 at 22:35

    Thought provoking stuff. I actually think we’re already in the dark age of digital information. Give me the integrity of a book any day. People have to work much harder to write, produce and distributed a book or information that is published on paper, anyway, so there’s just a chance it might be more reliable than the information junk yard that the internet has become. Sorry. I don’t usually go off like that! Just feeling a bit jaded with it all, I think.

    Like

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This site was created for members and friends of My Telegraph blog site, but anyone is welcome to comment, and thereafter apply to become an author.

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The Real Economy

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