The Dark Digital Ages

There’s an interesting article on Popular Mechanics right now about “The Digital Ice Age,” a term they’re using to describe the danger of losing much of the information created by our current digital society to the lack of backwards compatibility. It’s good to see this issue getting some attention. People really should be giving more thought to what is happening to information as technology advances. It’s also good that they didn’t decide to title this article “The Digital Dark Ages.”* Here’s a good quote to convince you to read the entire article:

In 1986, for example, the British Broadcasting Corp. compiled a modern, interactive version of William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book, a survey of life in medieval England. More than a million people submitted photographs, written descriptions and video clips for this new “book.” It was stored on laser discs — considered indestructible at the time — so future generations of students and scholars could learn about life in the 20th century.

But 15 years later, British officials found the information on the discs was practically inaccessible — not because the discs were corrupted, but because they were no longer compatible with modern computer systems. By contrast, the original Domesday Book, written on parchment in 1086, is still in readable condition in England’s National Archives in Kew. (The multimedia version was ultimately salvaged.)

Now, it’s important that we laugh at the BBC for the right reasons. We shouldn’t laugh at them for not living up to the lifespan of the original Domesday Book.
The elder Domesday was a tax census, and thus immediately useful to the people who created it and increasingly useful as time passed. A collection of multimedia clips designed for posterity is pretty much doomed to obscurity the moment it’s created. The real reason those laserdiscs became unreadable is because there was nothing much on them worth reading. Thus, we should really be laughing at the BBC for choosing to name their little time capsule project after William the Conqueror’s bean counting project.

There’s a much more useful Digital Domesday out there, a searchable electronic edition of the medieval text available from the National Archives in Britain. Strangely enough, there’s no quick link that I can find on that site to a browseable version. You have to search for names or dates to see the facsimiles; you can’t just pull up page fifteen verso. You can, however, play a flash game featuring animated cows, and animated cows don’t come cheap, so you can see why they had to scrimp on usability.

Still, the main point that the Popular Science article raises is a good one. The usual meme about information in the Internet Age is that technology is freeing it, delivering it more quickly and more efficiently to a wider audience than ever before. While that is certainly true in the short run, technology is also becoming increasingly efficient at creating digital prisons for the information it once spread, walling it up behind copy protection, digital rights management, and proprietary software. But these three deliberate menaces pale in comparison to neglect and disrepair. Electronic media is not as vulnerable to bookworms, ale-stains, or dry rot, sure, but it’s far more vulnerable to people not caring very much about the information it contains for just long enough for the information to go poof. Try clicking on the links at a MST3K fan page and you’ll see what I mean. When the guy who used to run the comprehensive list of celebrity cameos on Dharma and Greg decides to take up skydiving and stops paying the server bill in order to save up for a new piece of falling-out-of-the-sky paraphernalia, all that information winks out of existence.

The answer’s not time capsules, though. People generally think that a thing like a time capsule would be a great boon to future historians, but judging by my experience with present-day historians, they’re really no more useful than a landfill or a trunk in the attic. The things that are important to historians are usually not the things that those living through events think are important, or the things that we want historians to think that we thought were important. If that last sentence is confusing, just think of the Public Radio interviewer’s game of “Desert Island Discs” or Lindsay Lohan’s iPod playlist as printed in whatever vanity interview is being published this month. Whenever someone asks you or Lindsay, “What five albums would you take if you were stranded on a desert island?” the last thing you do is give an honest answer.

If you’re like Lindsay, you say whatever your publicist thinks will make your legions of adoring fans think that you’re the “way of the future. If you’re like me, you try to think up the cleverest way to answer the question, something like, “Five MP3 CD’s with my entire record collection burned to it.” Either way, you’re not going to find out that both Lindsay and I love listening to Britney Spears’ “Toxic” at the gym unless you find our old Ipod player on the floor of the club we were partying all night at or that legal pad we were scribbling our playlist on during that lecture on paleography.** But if you’re going for the Ipod player, access it soon, before either electromagnetic decay kills the hard drive or Apple decides to stop supporting their old file formats.

Future generations are going to have an easier time reading the text on the Domesday book or a copy of Us Magazine than they will playing the Flash game featuring the cows or reading this blog. Paper is solid state memory that is unmatched in its ability to preserve information that nobody is interested in at the time, but that someone might be interested in later. Beowulf sat unread for over six-hundred years, give or take a century. The Winchester manuscript of Malory’s Morte D’Arthur was found on a shelf in a school library in the 20th century. Paper’s not perfect. Data loss is a persistent feature of the medium. Beowulf almost disappeared in a fire at Ashburnham House, after all.*** But until we have a digital medium that’s got a comparable shelf life and loss rate, it’s not time to toss out all those old books and newspapers in favor of jpeg scans.****

*A feat not accomplished by CBS’s story “Coming Soon: A Digital Dark Age?” back in 2003.
**Lindsay and I have more in common than you ever imagined.
***Ashburnham House is one of those signs that there is a God with a weird sense of humor, or possibly a sign that British archivists in the eighteenth century were completely bonkers. If you’re looking for a place to store your highly flammable Anglo-Saxon manuscript collection, would you choose a place called Ash-burn-ham House? Perhaps they figured they had a 33% chance of the manuscripts turning into tasty pork products and decided to play the odds.
****For a truly horrifying look at our library system’s plans to do just that, I urge you to read Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper.

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  • Matthew

    A side note:

    I was able to go to a mini-seminar at the Huntington about a year ago. Mary Robertson, who was giving the talk, mentioned that something similar to the Domesday book debacle had been done in Australia in the 80’s. Several manuscripts were scanned and digitally stored, but the company (and thus the file format) that they were stored in has since gone with the wind.

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