Digital Dark Age

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

We have been setting ourselves up for a digital Dark Age:

“I worry a great deal about that,” Mr Cerf told me. “You and I are experiencing things like this. Old formats of documents that we’ve created or presentations may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backwards compatibility is not always guaranteed.

“And so what can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is.”

The solution? Digital vellum:

“The solution is to take an X-ray snapshot of the content and the application and the operating system together, with a description of the machine that it runs on, and preserve that for long periods of time. And that digital snapshot will recreate the past in the future.”


  1. Mike in Boston says:

    The open source VirtualBox project will get us through any digital dark ages that may crop up. I’m more concerned about a physical dark age.

  2. Bob Sykes says:

    VirtualBox is a bad joke. The sheer mass of material encoded digitally and on paper and film means that almost all of it will be lost. NASA can’t even keep film of the Apollo landings, and Hollywood has lost several classic movies: “Lost Horizons” exists only in parts. MS Word cannot read Word files created in earlier version; I believe 5 is the backwards compatible limit. Heaven help you if you have anything on floppy disks or magnetic tape or punch cards.

  3. Bob Sykes says:

    I forgot to add: xraying the hardware is another joke. Who would bother to rebuild the machines 100 years from now. Where would they get the specifications for the construction materials, the tolerances, the BIOS and operating systems? Nowhere.

    Our current civilization has an effective memory span of about 30 years, one generation, in both living memory and records. Our current best storage material is acid-free paper. It is far more durable than any digital medium, although nowhere near as good as parchement or baked clay. We have clay records from 5,000 years ago and parchement from over 1,000 years ago. However, anyone who has been in the stacks of a major library knows that virtually all the original paper documents from as recently as 40 years ago and earlier is crunbling to dust.

    An economic/political collapse that produced a dark age would erase virtually everything. Only extreme luck and super human efforts have left us with anything from the ancient Greeks and Romans, and virtually nothing from many other civilizations, early historic India being a good example.

  4. Bill says:

    Frank Herbert gave us a taste of what will happen in Heretics of Dune. Imagine an organization that has been around for millennia! Formats from cuneiform to flash cards to Other Memory. The solution: mentat Archivists.

    Clay tablets are actually pretty good storage, as long as the language isn’t lost. For us, though, once the lights go out, we’ll lose everything.

  5. Mike in Boston says:

    If you don’t like VirtualBox, a different sort of solution is the Rosetta Disk: a three-inch nickel disk with text spiraling down from a visible size to nanoscale. With a good enough optical microscope, thirty thousand pages can be read from it.

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