Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, January 24, 2011

The threat of a Digital Dark Age -- media invention?

In my post on "Sunshine on the Digital Dark Age" I responded to a newspaper article about a presentation by Janet Hovorka. At the time, this was the first time I had heard a reference to a "digital dark age." In doing some online research on storage and backing up files, I ran across the term in another context, long before Janet's presentation at the Riverton FamilySearch Library. A quick Google search shows about 148,000 references to "digital dark age" including a Wikipedia article. The Wikipedia definition is "The Digital Dark Age is a term used to describe a possible future situation where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical documents, because they have been stored in an obsolete digital format.The name derives from the Dark Ages in the sense that there would then be a relative lack of written record."

The term seems to have originated clear back in 1997. Again to Wikipedia, "The first published mention of the term might be at a conference of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) in 1997 . The term was also mentioned in 1998 at the Time and Bits conference, which was co-sponsored by the Long Now Foundation and the Getty Conservation Institute." (citations omitted).

OK, do we have yet another reason for hand wringing? Is this a real problem or merely a catchy phrase that really has no meaning? I blame this particular phrase on the abysmal lack of knowledge about history. Losing data stored on computers or on magnetic media is not going to destroy the world. Lack of education and use of the knowledge we have might do that, but obsolete storage media and obsolete file formats are not going to destroy civilization. Just for the record, I know a whole lot about the Mayans and Central America and I don't think the world will end in 2012.

However, loss of data to genealogists (and a lot of others) due to obsolete file formats or out-of-date physical media is a real problem. But the idea of a digital dark age dates back to 1997, well before the Internet spread across the whole world. Just one example of what is going on with a lot of the data presently on the Internet. I can search for a book about my family on WorldCat. Here is the reference:

Tanner, Maurice, and George C. Tanner. Descendants of John Tanner; Born August 15, 1778, at Hopkintown, R.I., Died April 15, 1850, at South Cottonwood, Salt Lake County, Utah. 1923.

This book is listed in 38 libraries in 7 editions. All of these are physical books. There is a digital copy in the Hathi Trust Digital Library as well as on HeritageQuest.  I also have my own personal copy of the print edition of this book. In addition, all of the information is this book is in thousands of genealogy files scattered across the world. The book also is available on Google Books as well as from several book sellers. There is no danger of this book being lost, at least for the present.

Can you lose you files to a failure to back up your files, migrate them to newer programs or through old media? Certainly. It can and does happen every day. Will this loss cause the collapse of civilization? Hardly.


  1. James

    I fully agree - several folks have been using the "digital dark ages" terminology as of late and I think it is entirely inaccurate.

  2. As an IT support technician, I concur with your assessment that this is an overblown issue. While there is concern about the rapid change of media formats and possible loss of data due to lack of hardware with which to read them (it has happened, to NASA!), it's not likely to lead to a dark age. However, we do need to be aware of the issue to prevent it becoming a possibility! Another thing to be aware of is that CD and DVD storage shelf life is much less than what the manufacturers were promising. Depending on storage conditions, CD's can become unreadable in as few as 3-5 years! It's not known how long USB flash drive storage remains viable, either. It's a good idea to periodically check your data stores and if needed copy the data to newer storage media. And, as always, make more than one copy, and preferably store one copy somewhere other than your house.

  3. The first thought to pop into my head was "Y2K." That caused some real hand wringing before it didn't happen, but this is different. So much outdated media is being transferred to newer forms of storage that I see failure to do this as something more likely to affect individuals than an entire society.