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The Digital Dark Age, Part 1

Posted in UC3

This will be known as the Digital Dark Age.  The first time I heard this statement was at Internet Archive, during the PDA 2012 Meeting (read my blog post about it here).  What did this mean?  What is a Digital Dark Age? Read on.

While serving in Vietnam, my father wrote letters to my grandparents about his life fighting a war in a foreign country.  One of his letters was sent to arrive in time for my grandfather’s birthday, and it contained a lovely poem that articulated my father’s warm feelings about his childhood, his parents, and his upbringing.  My grandparents kept the poem framed in a prominent spot in their home.  When I visited them as a child, I would read the poem written in my young dad’s  handwriting, stare at the yellowed paper, and think about how far that poem had to travel to relay its greetings to my grandparents.  It was special– for its history, the people involved, and the fact that these people were intimately connected to me.

Now fast forward to 2012.  Imagine modern-day soldiers all over the world, emailing, making satellite phone calls, and chatting with their families via video conferencing.  When compared to snail mail, these modern communication methods are likely a much preferred way of staying in touch for those families.  But how likely is it that future grandchildren will be able to listen those the conversations, read those emails, or watch those video calls?  The answer is extremely unlikely.

These two scenarios sum up the concept of a Digital Dark Age: compared to 40 years ago, we are doing a terrible job of ensuring that future generations will be able to read our letters, look at our pictures, or use our scientific data.

mix tapes
You mean future generations won’t be able to listen to my mix tapes?! From Flickr by newrambler

The Digital Dark Age “refers to a possible future situation where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical digital documents and multimedia, because they have been stored in an obsolete and obscure digital format.”  The phrase “Dark Age” is a reference to The Dark Ages, a period in history around the beginning of the Middle Ages characterized by a scarcity of historical and other written records at least for some areas of Europe, rendering it obscure to historians.  Sounds scary, no?

How can we remedy this situation? What are people doing about it? Most importantly, what does this mean for scientific advancement? Check out my next post to find out.

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