The concept of the Digital Dark Age has been around for quite some time, and has been a key topic of discussion at the Long Now Foundation since its inception in 01996. In fact, it has been my own raison d’être since I started grad school in 02006. It may be a surprise to some that I am not here to wave the flag in our march against the great foe of the DDA, but rather question the temerity of the claims to its looming existence.
In the 01990s, when we first started really talking about the issues of digital storage media and file format obsolescence, it was almost as if we were caught with our pants down. We hadn’t truly been thinking about this as a problem; we as a civilization weren’t prepared for the challenges it posed. We soon realized, however, that digital documents have their own complex fragility and maintaining access to digitally encoded information over the long-term may be more challenging than the analog. There was a flurry of activity across the globe, and while the topic faded from the headlines, the flurry of activity continued and has slowly and steadily gained momentum.
Almost a year ago, new sources were abuzz again about the Digital Dark Age after Vint Cerf sounded the latest warning bell. While I typically rejoice whenever my rather obscure research area gets some well-deserved media attention, I felt a little flummoxed. The core of the DDA concept presupposes a world where no one has or is doing anything about it. Yes, if we we do nothing now to collect and preserve not only the bitstreams, but also the contextual information (or metadata, as I describe here), that information could very well be lost forever. Where a lack of action may have been more of the case in the 01990s, it is certainly less so today. In the early days, there were just a handful of pioneers talking about and working on digital preservation, but today there are hundreds of tremendously intelligent and skilled people focused on preserving access to the yottabytes of digital cultural heritage and science data we have and will create.
I will return to when I questioned when Kevin Kelly told Robert Krulwich that “there is no species of technology that have ever gone globally extinct on this planet.” I knew there were loads of people interested in working on making video game emulators, but I wasn’t sure if obscure formats like VisiCalc would ever be sexy enough to gain enough attention to be preserved. Well, I’m here to eat my doubtful words. I’m very please to admit that I think Kevin Kelly is right. This idea, coupled with the fact that I know now that there is an army of people equipped with the interest, knowledge, and skills to prevent it (and we are training more every day!), I feel confident in saying that there will very likely be #nodigitaldarkage.