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Living in the Digital Dark Ages

Updated 2 November 2019

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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.

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We are living in the digital dark ages

Introduction

The headlines scream, "we may be creating a digital dark age" (wayback). Even Wikipedia has a long description of what the digital dark age (wayback). 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?

What is digital content preservation?

Are you looking for a concise, jargon-free explanation of digital content preservation? We looked around and in our opinion, this is the best explanation that we could find.

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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.

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.

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.

Article tags: personal digital archiving

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