Digital dark age
The digital dark age is a possible future situation where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical electronic documents and multimedia, because they have been in an obsolete and obscure file format. The name derives from the term Dark Ages in the sense that there would be a relative lack of written record.
An early mention of the term was at a conference of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) in 1997. The term was also mentioned in 1998 at the Time and Bits conference, which was co-sponsored by the Long Now Foundation and the Getty Conservation Institute.
The problem is not limited to text documents, but applies equally to photos, video, audio and other kinds of electronic documents. One concern leading to the use of the term is that documents are stored on physical media which require special hardware in order to be read and that this hardware will not be available in a few decades from the time the document was created. For example, it is already the case that disk drives capable of reading 5 1⁄4 inch floppy disks are not readily available.
The Digital Dark Age also applies to the problems which arise due to obsolete file formats. In such a case, it is the lack of the necessary software which causes problems when retrieving stored documents. This is especially problematic when proprietary formats are used, in which case it might be impossible to write appropriate software to read the file.
A famous real example is with NASA, whose early space records have suffered from a Dark Age issue more than once. For over a decade, magnetic tapes from the 1976 Viking Mars landing were unprocessed. When later analyzed, the data was unreadable as it was in an unknown format and the original programmers had either died or left NASA. The images were eventually extracted following many months of puzzling through the data and examining how the recording machines functioned.
Another example is the BBC Domesday Project in which a survey of the nation was compiled 900 years after the Domesday Book was published. While the information in the Domesday Book is still accessible today, there were great fears that the discs of the Domesday Project would become unreadable as computers capable of reading the format had become rare and drives capable of accessing the discs even rarer. However, the system was emulated in 2002 using a system called DomesEm by the CAMiLEON project. This allows the information on the discs to be accessed on modern computers.
Encrypted data may also prove to be an issue, as the process needed to decode the data can increase complexity. Historically, encrypted data is quite rare, but even the very simple means available throughout history have provided many examples of documents that can only be read with great effort. For example, it took the capacity of a distributed computing project to break the mechanically generated code of a single brief World War II submarine tactical message. Modern encryption is being used in many more documents and media due to publishers wanting the promised protections of DRM.
As more records have become stored in digital form, there have been several measures to standardize electronic file formats so software to read them is widely available and can be re-implemented on new platforms if necessary.
One approach is open source, where the source code for reading and writing a file format is open. In 2007 the chief information officer of the UK's National Archives stated "We welcome open-source software because it makes our lives easier".
In popular culture
- Apollo 11 missing tapes
- Data archaeology
- Data corruption
- Digital continuity
- Digital obsolescence
- Digital preservation
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- Digital Dark Ages article at LISWiki, a Library science wiki
- Coming Soon A Digital Dark Age - CBS News
- How huge quantities of data are rapidly falling into a black hole - Guardian Unlimited
- The digital Dark Age - The Sydney Morning Herald
- A Digital Dark Ages? Challenges in the Preservation of Electronic Information (PDF)
- Why the Demise of Print Media May Be Bad for Humanity, Tony Bradley, PCWorld, 19 March 2012
- Bit Rot - The Economist, 28 April 2012