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Living in the Digital Dark Age

Updated 11 April 2020

What is the digital dark age and why are we living in it? This article investigates what we can do about saving our digital heritage.

We are living in the digital dark age

Introduction

The headlines scream, "we may be creating a digital dark age." Even Wikipedia has a long description of what the digital dark age. is. Some people may call it hysteria, but we think the risk is very real. We dive knee deep into analyzing patterns that support the theory that we are living a period of mass heritage extinction. Data and information is ruthlessly deleted at an exponential rate. Once it is gone it is gone. That is why we give a wayback link to most of the items we link to on this website.

We also believe that the reason why the issues surrounding the digital dark ages has not been illuminated is because of the two-fold trends of the Internet. Reason 1 - Data is being created at an exponential rate. Who would notice if 200MB of data was lost when 2000TB of data might be created by the hour. Reason 2 - So many many more people are using computers and smartphones and accessing the web. Literally billions of people. Would they even notice, or care, if data from 30 years ago was not available to them?

Digital content is convenient and ever present. It is easy to believe that our data will be with us forever but in reality it is fragile and unstable. Data has a natural urge to decay and become unusable either through corruption or an inability to read and use the content in its original form. Every transformation creates a new state that is different from its original form.

What is digital content preservation?

Digital loss can come in many forms. Our current focus is on the cultural loss as formerly popular groups and message boards disappear. Yahoo Groups is an example that springs to mind. Yahoo is within their financial right to stop supporting mailing lists However, with possibly over 150 million users of My Yahoo Groups, we can only imagine what society loses when the delete button is hit.

It is true that storage costs continue to fall. Storage costs are only one part of a very complex equation. Digital content needs to be maintained to ensure it stays relevant and accessible. Metadata needs to be store and made available. Constant review is required to ensure all of these datasets meet ongoing legislative and cultural standards.

One often overlooked issue is that software packages do not always save in a format that is 100% compliant to the relevant specification. This could be because the software developer wanted to add a snazzy feature to the file format appears to work in current software libraries but is prone to future failure. Or there is an unknown bug in the file format export function that appears to work but really is not future failure proof. Some formats are really executable formats, like PostScript, are very difficult to repair if the programming or file data gets corrupted.

A new and fresh art installation has been created to give form and meaning to the digital dark age. Degredation advertises itself as an interactive audio visual installation inspired by the digital obsolescence and information impermanence. OK, these are two big terms that may be difficult to one's toungue around but it means that digital does not last forever. Digital content will not last 1,00 years. Your digital content may not even last 10 years. How much digital content do you have from 2010 and that gives you some idea about how much may be available 10 years from now. Eventually our digital footprint will degrade and become unrecognisable.

What is software preservation?

It isn't just your cherished photos that are important to archive. Much software that has revolutionized the way we live our lives has been lost to future generations. We put forward our list of critical software pieces that need preserving. Wikipedia is currently running with the list of commercial video games with available source code.

Hundreds of game source code instances, coming up from the 1970s through to today, have been collated into a single archive. The Internet Archive are kindly hosting the game source collection. There is also the video game preservation project, Historical Source project, and Libre Games archive all of which are hosted on GitHub. GitHub even has the code so you can run a very early history of Microsoft Flight Simulator.

How Digital Content degrades

We think that this is a classic case of digital irony. The intelligent starting point for anyone looking for information on the Digital Dark Ages is to browse the Wikipedia article. The person who claimed to have created this article was Niels Elken Sønderby as shown on the revision page back in December 2006. The linked blog post proudly proclaims:

I don't think I can think of a topic that interests me for which I haven't been able to find an article on Wikipedia.
However, recently it happened that a topic that I've heard mentioned independently by my brother-in-law and a colleague simply didn't exist on Wikipedia. So I thought that my contribution to Wikipedia should be an article on the Digital Dark Age. I hope you'll enjoy it. And be bold in editing.

Posted on Thursday 20 November 2006 by Niels Elken Sønderby

Preserving website data is more difficult that first thoughts would suggest. Let us show you visually by providing screenshots from this blog post of a decade. The information shown here is derived from the ever useful Wayback archives.

Niels Elken Sønderby blog post on the digital dark age
Figure: Example of how a blog entry looks over a decade

The first screenshot shows what the original post looks like. The page appears to be written in Wordpress and contains no errors. By 2016, the personal blog had fallen out of use and user's looking to read this little piece of history received a 403 error, meaning that the blog post was not available to read. The announcement for a new Wikipedia article was lost.

Then by 2019, the blog entry had returned. There are problems with this web page. For starters, it is showing scripting errors (the text in black) and the reply section is closed. Even worse, the web page has turned into an advertising page offering Buy Cialis Professional. How this relates to the original post is not obvious. To our eyes, this likes a case of subtle graffiti.

So what can we learn from this? For starters, it shows that the Internet is only a temporary repository of information. Secondly, all data can get lost. And finally, even with the original blog post data, the content management system had changed leading to errors and making it hard to read the original announcement.

And that my friends, explains the case of how digital content degrades.

Should I print my photos?

Almost everyone in the world has a quality camera in their smartphone and happy memories are just a click away. Before digital, people took rolls and rolls of chemical film, made famous by the Kodak 35mm cartridge. You would pull out your camera, say cheese, and weeks later a printed photo would appear. Hours were spend adding photos to photo albums and browsing fading memories. Don't forget that the photos were annotated with witty comments and hazy explanations. But who has the time now?

In the digital age, we are constantly creating data, especially photos and videos that we share across the world. Each photo is meta-tagged with the time, camera settings, and geospatial information. Modern facial recognition systems will also automatically, and accurately, tag our friends faces in these photos. All of these digital memories take exactly zero seconds of our time to create. A casual look back in your photo will give you a world on detailed historical information on your life.

Stop and look a little further back and you will see that your memories suddenly stop, or at the very least, significantly reduce in quality, quantity and meta data. For many, that point is the date they purchased their current smartphone.

The book, Bit Rot by Marcia Amid, quotes Vint Cert on of the fathers of the Internet as saying,

If there are pictures that you really care about then creating a physical instance is probably a good idea. Print them out, literally.

Article tags: personal digital archiving

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