Cure for the Digital Dark Age?

Posted on Tuesday, August 16th, 02011 by Heather Ryan
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Real Men Don't Use Menus

*An old VisiCalc ad from the early 80’s.

The Digital Dark Age beacon has been flashing lately with some renewed frequency. It seems that articles on the pitfalls and challenges of preserving our digital “stuff” are starting to find their way back into the mainstream media. Most recent and notable of these is Kari Kraus’ op-ed piece in the New York Times, “When Data Disappears.” The most salient thing that Kraus points to in this piece is the formation of specialist communities and their role in the preservation of video games.

When I first met Kevin Kelly, he told me of his notion that no technology will ever become obsolete because there will always be someone or some enthusiast community that will put energy toward the preservation of even the most obscure thing. He famously told Robert Krulwich of NPR that, “there is no species of technology that has ever gone globally extinct on this planet.”

What he is saying is that there will always be some force of human compulsion or need that emerges to buoy the inventions of our race. This is important. It is this notion of emergence that will help save us from our dreaded digital dark age. What I find myself doing now is trying to envision the existence of Visicalc enthusiast clubs or a group for any of the tens of thousands of digital file formats that have surfaced over the years. I can almost see it. It doesn’t seem totally infeasible to me, but part of me worries that some of these technologies just aren’t sexy enough to be embraced in the same way that old video games are. I wonder, too, about the scalability of Kelly’s idea. As the production of new technology gets faster, will there be enough human interest to sustain the preservation of ALL of it?

Time will tell and I am certainly betting on the hope that there will.

  • Coloradoart

    File formats will eventually become too numerous to manage, it’s as simple as that.

  • We appreciate the Web for it’s ability to get us current information about anything, but a century from now its qualities as an archive of thought, interaction, and trend data will be almost as valuable (if not more).

    Think about if Shakespeare tweeted, Sarah Bernhardt posted auditions on YouTube, or debates between followers of Leibniz and Newton were fought out on Wikipedia discussion pages. And, who knows, that archive of VisiCalc files could show some kind of demographic trend that we can’t see now.

  • Anonymous

    “there is no species of technology that has ever gone globally extinct on this planet.”

    Do pyramids count? If not, how about Stonehenge?  Those are two examples where we don’t have a clear idea of what they did to build those artifacts. We can make decent guesses, but the method has definitely been lost, and tech is method as much as material (following Ursula Franklin on that notion). Of course we can never be sure there aren’t technologies that didn’t go extinct before they could be recorded for historical posterity, but it seems that we have numerous examples of devices and achievements of antiquity that we don’t understand today, precisely because the understanding of the tech has been lost, though it could have also been replaced or subsumed by later technology. 

    But on the original topic of data preservation, it’s important and I’m glad to read that it’s getting some traction in the mainstream. Among my less tech savvy friends, just making backups of their computers is becoming more normal and it’s a relief as one of the first people who gets their call for tech support :)

    Love that VisiCalc ad. I didn’t know Clark Kent was a spreadsheet guy.

  • Jay

    “there is no species of technology that has ever gone globally extinct on this planet.”

    We wouldn’t know about the technologies that have gone extinct, now would we?

  • Heather

    It’s all about the context. You would make a great archivist!

  • Pope

    If centrally managed: sure.
    If maintained by the relevant enthusiast community: no problem!

  • Heather

    Thanks, Todd. We can use people like you on the front lines. :)

  • Kyle Kochis

    I’m a software engineer and I can say with certainty that there are several propriety file formats that have already gone extinct. I’ve worked with quite a bit of this working with data forensics and conversion and writing software that can convert hundreds of file formats. Unfortunately there are some closed formats that can only be opened by software that is no longer published made by companies that no longer exist and is no longer used at all. This generally only happens with formats that were only used in enterprise applications and had no enthusiast or common use.

    These types of statements or “long bets” are perfect examples of what journalists, writers, and academics say when they don’t actually do the job they are talking about day to day. They need to get back into the data and write file converters on obscure formats that no one knows about before they make such big statements. Unfortunately the media regularly publishes and broadcasts misinformed information about technology and how it works and this is one such example.

  • Are not file formats just exceedingly simple cryptography? Just sayin’.

  • Heather

    Kyle, thank you for your comment. I guess I’m poking at Kevin Kelly’s proposal a little bit here because I understand how complicated it is to reverse engineer all of the software we need to access all of the digital information out there. Like I said, I am not sure that many file formats are “sexy” enough to be kept alive. I would like to see as much of it saved as reasonably possible, but there are challenges inherent in this that make me very nervous. I am thrilled that your work involves data forensics and conversion. I’d like to know more about what file formats you believe are extinct. There are those who claim there is no such thing as file format obsolescence and I have to admit, I am dubious. 

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