Our history is full of doomsday prophecies. Statistics show that they are wrong to about 100%, and that seems to be accurate as we still are here. 🙂 Vint Cerf is not that pessimistic when predicting a digital dark age. His doomsday only affects our data, but that’s scary too. So what is this all about and how does it affect us ordinary mortals?
Mr. Cerf is reminding us about one of the fundamental challenges in electronic data processing. The technology is still very young and sometimes unreliable. A special problem is the longevity of storage media. A traditional photographic print can last several hundreds of years and the oldest preserved writings are thousands of years old, but electronic data media longevity is measured in tens of years. And on top of that comes the rapid technology development that can make media incompatible before it breaks. Digital storage may become a black hole, you put things there but get nothing out. This could lead to a dark era from which we have almost no digital memories, according to him. But how realistic is this horror scenario? Let’s fill in some points that Mr. Cerf left out.
- The digital technology actually enables infinite life for our data, if used right. The old photograph starts to slowly degrade from day one and no copy of it is perfect. Digital info can be copied to a new media an infinite number of times without degrading quality.
- Any digital media has a limited lifetime. But the rapid technology development will silently solve this problem for most people. The computer becomes too old and slow before the magnetism starts to fade on the hard disk, and everything is copied to a fresh new computer. (*
- The need to regularly copy data to fresh media will also solve the compatibility problems. You will normally never need to access media that is more than some 5 – 10 years old. And media that young is still compatible. The floppy disks that usually are shown to illustrate incompatible media are over 25 years old. (*
- But what about the file formats? It will be easy to implement support for our current file formats in tomorrow’s computer systems. That will be done if there is a need for it. So don’t worry if you are using the common standard file formats like JPG-images, MS Word or PDF-documents. They will no doubt be supported for a long time. But this may be an issue if you are using some exotic and less common format.
- We are entering the era of cloud storage. Our data is transferred to professionally managed data centers that take care of both backup and periodical media renewal on our behalf. Sure, they can fail too. But they are in generic a lot more reliable than our own homebrewed backup procedures.
- The use of cloud storage introduces a new threat. How long will the cloud company be around? A good thing to think about before selecting where to store the data.
- Another big threat against our data is our own attitude. Handling digital data is very easy, including deleting it. We need to understand the value of our data to make sure it is preserved.
- Last but not least. A very big threat against all data, analog or digital, is inability to find it. My piles of old slide photo boxes are of little use as they only have some labels with year and place. Looking for a particular shot is a nightmare. But my digital collection can easily be searched for place, time, equipment, technical data, keywords, etc. The pre-digital era was really the dark age seen from this perspective!
So to wrap up. Yes, the digital revolution brings new challenges that we need to be aware of. But luckily also good tools to deal with them. Digital storage will no doubt lead to personal data loss for many persons. Disks crash every day and data is lost. So there is a true risk that digital storage leads to a personal dark age for you, unless you handle your data right.
But there’s absolutely no need to talk about a digital dark age in a broader sense. Historians will easily get enough information about our society. It doesn’t matter if some of us have lost our files, there’s still plenty to work on. Actually, data overload will be a more likely problem for them.
Good news. The sky is not falling after all!
(* This is assuming that you keep your files on the computer. These problems will become real if you archive files on external media, store it away for later use and remember them some 20 years later.