Illustration for article titled Digital Dark Age Could Destroy Our Cultural Record

You may be an internet celebrity today, but in 50 years nobody will remember you — not because your star faded, but because literally nobody can watch your YouTube vids. If you’ve ever lost all your digital photos in a computer crash or struggled to open a docx file in Windows 2004, you know that digital media isn’t always the best way to store and transfer information. Now information scientists are concerned that so much of our information and art is tied up in digital media, a huge portion of our cultural legacy could soon be lost forever.Jerome McDonough, an assistant professor of library and information science at the University of Illinois, notes that our society has amassed over 369 exabytes of data, which includes art, business transactions, and correspondence. McDonough fears that this reliance on digital storage will lead to a “digital dark age” in which all this data is destroyed or rendered unreadable. While the physical records of previous eras are susceptible to destruction and decay, our digital media are far more vulnerable:

Contrary to popular belief, electronic data has proven to be much more ephemeral than books, journals or pieces of plastic art. After all, when was the last time you opened a WordPerfect file or tried to read an 8-inch floppy disk? "Even over the course of 10 years, you can have a rapid enough evolution in the ways people store digital information and the programs they use to access it that file formats can fall out of date," McDonough said. Magnetic tape, which stores most of the world's computer backups, can degrade within a decade. According to the National Archives Web site by the mid-1970s, only two machines could read the data from the 1960 U.S. Census: One was in Japan, the other in the Smithsonian Institution. Some of the data collected from NASA's 1976 Viking landing on Mars is unreadable and lost forever.


McDonough and other digital archivists are working to find ways to preserve our cultural legacy, but there are challenges. Proprietary platforms, for example, protect intellectual property, but create a greater risk that the media will be unreadable to future generations. It may be time to consider a discipline in digital archeology to develop tools to ensure the future readability of media across all platforms. 'Digital dark age' may doom some data [Physorg via Futurismic]


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