The Next Dark Age

“Will more family photos survive from gran’s lifetime than from yours?”

The answer to this seemingly absurd question may seem like “no” at first glance, but think again.

In all truth, we are actually at risk of the crisis of the next “dark age”, of losing all records from the present age. Computers and the internet may seem to have made this impossible, as it doesn’t matter anymore if physical records are lost: there’s always a version ready to be retrieved hiding away in some computer on Planet Earth…right? Wrong.

As technology advances, we are actually at a growing risk of our files becoming unreadable either through the software/media required to read the said file becoming obsolete or un-runnable through the hardware required to read the software becoming obsolete. Another possibility is that the file itself becomes obsolete or “corrupted,” and future generations will not be able to recover some, most, or all of the said file.

Thus, future generations may end up with billions of files in computers right next to them, but forlorn and unreadable.

In other words, the next “dark age” will not come from the lack of physical records, but instead from our virtual files becoming unreadable or obsolete.

And this is just not some ludicrous theory, but really a probable dark future. What’s worse, this process may be unstoppable.

You see, digital dark-aging is actually accelerated as technology advances, and it is advancing at a truly exponential rate.

For example, Moore’s Law states that the processing power of computers doubles every two years, instead of increasing by a constant amount.

This means that the obsolescence of file formats, software and hardware is also increasing at an exponential rate. As new file formats rise in popularity, the currently universal, say, pre-2007 Word file format (.doc) may obsolesce, leaving many files unreadable and future generations, therefore,”in the dark” about the information stored in them.

An even bigger issue is encrypted data, as trying to decode the data adds yet another level of difficulty to the already convoluted process of extracting obsolete files. Although encrypted data comprises a relatively small portion of all the data in the world, many important files are confidentially encrypted, making this yet another factor in the possibility of a future “digital dark age.”

Wait, did I just say “future”? Oops, ’cause this is already happening.

One famous example surrounds NASA’s Viking Mars landing files.

The magnetic tapes from the 1976 landing were left unprocessed, and when people tried to analyze them a decade later, the data was already unreadable and stored in an unknown format. To make matters worse, the original programmers had either died or left NASA. But fortunately that time, following months of deciphering the data, the images were finally retrieved.

And this is only one example: another famous one is what happened to the BBC Domesday Project.

If this makes you question the meaning of life, then rest easy for now as there is still hope. Measures have been taken to circumvent this impending “dark age” by governments and archives all over the world.

One way to avoid the “next dark age” is by standardizing electronic file formats. This way, the hardware and software required to read them will be widely available. And, if for some reason they aren’t, then, to read files from the past, one will only have to re-implement one or a few file formats on new platforms instead of, say, dozens or hundreds of formats.

For example, governments of countries like the United Kingdom are storing their files in the widely recognizable PDF/A format (.pdf).

Another example is by using OpenSource .docx instead of .doc, .pptx instead of .ppt, .xlsx instead of .xls, and so on. The extra x is used for versions of Microsoft Office launched after 2007, and comes in handy as the source code is both open (editable and therefore easier to implement down the road) and a standard for Office files, which proliferate the digital files of today.

Have questions/concerns/thoughts on “the next dark age”? If you said yes, put them in the comments below, and we could maybe have an interesting discussion or two that way.

For more information, read this Wikipedia article.

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