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The Digital Dark Age

 

BIS is launching a four-part series examining the phenomenon known as “the Digital Dark Age.”

We hope the four-part blog will help readers understand how vital it is for them to place a high priority on ensuring all of their data is kept in a format that is readable, accessible, and searchable.

There are ways to avoid “sinking” into the Digital Dark Age, but it requires proper planning and an understanding of the platforms that can help.

This is the first installment in our four-part series.

 

WHAT IS THE DIGITAL DARK AGE?

The Dark Ages, also known as the Early Middle Ages, now seem like a distant chapter of human history. Between 500 A.D. and 1300 A.D. – after the fall of the Roman Empire – the known world entered a time very little is known about because of a lack of written records. Most people imagine this period of human history as being dark and violent, filled with scenes of plague, poverty and the worst kind of suffering you can imagine.

The Dark Ages were actually quite a prosperous and peaceful period of human history, but there are huge gaps in our understanding of this part of our history because of the lack of information recorded in a format we can read.

Now that we live in an age of technology, where vast quantities of digital records are created every single day, it’s very hard to see how humanity might be moving towards another Dark Age. However, this time because of our overreliance on electronic storage, and a complacency caused by our own creativity and innovation, a sort of Digital Dark Age could be on the horizon.


In the years leading up to the millennium mankind was generating perhaps 100 GB of data per day, however in the last few years the quantity of digital information being created by humanity has increased to 2.5 million TB of data every single day.


There is a very real risk that future generations will know that we existed, but will know almost nothing about us simply because they will not be able to read the digital records we’ve left behind. That may sound gloom and doom, but just stop and think for a moment about what you might have stored in, say, an old company email server. The chances a pretty high that there are millions of emails…trapped and virtually irretrievable.

How many times have you tried opening a document, only to be told that the format isn’t recognized? There’s nothing wrong with the data – it’s just the file type is obsolete by modern standards, so the latest version of your word-processing or spreadsheet software has no ability to open it. To all extents and purposes that data is now useless. Now, imagine that happening to quintillion terabytes of data, 50 years from now. All the data is still intact, but nobody has any clue how to go about interpreting it. Scary!

To put this in perspective NASA has already had two separate incidents where previously collected data was unreadable because the engineers and programmers responsible for creating the software to read it had either retired or died. Now, you would be correct in saying that some of this data dated back to the Apollo missions, but even some of the information gathered from the 1976 Mars Viking Lander became problematic for the very same reasons.

In the years leading up to the millennium mankind was generating perhaps 100 GB of data per day, however in the last few years the quantity of digital information being created by humanity has increased to 2.5 million TB of data every single day. Nobody could have predicted this, but it’s now an issue that’s become apparent and is only going to get worse. We live in an age where there are tens of millions of files, created across multiple platforms that are no longer usable. This includes everything from documents and photographs, to audio and video files.

There is an unknown amount of data stored on digital media that are no longer used, such as 8-inch discs, 5.25-inch discs, 3.5-inch discs, CDs, tape drives, ZIP drives, and any of a number of other common and proprietary media types. For example, no modern computer comes supplied with a floppy disk drive, rendering files on that particular type of media very difficult (or impossible) to access. Or look at the fact that CD-ROM drives are no longer installed on modern laptops and many manufacturers of CD-ROM storage carousels no longer support that particular platform.


The Digital Dark Age will no doubt be followed by a digital renaissance, a time when data does not rely on proprietary systems to be read. But in the meantime you need to take steps to ensure that your legacy data doesn’t collapse under its own mass into a digital black hole.



We also need to acknowledge not only the types of media we use to store data on, but how that data is actually stored i.e. encrypted. In the near distant future researchers may find that they have physical access to data, but without the encryption key to unlock it, the data becomes unusable. After all, how can you decrypt data if you don’t even understand the algorithm that was used to create that encrypted data set in the first place? In addition to this we have a situation where quintillions of bytes of data are stored on a number of cloud platforms-the technology behind these often only understood by the software engineers who created it in the first place.

In a strange turn of events technological visionaries such as Vince Cerf, one of the creators of the Internet, is actively encouraging computer users to create physical copies of important documents, especially photographs, for the simple reason that this type of data storage is timeless. Let’s be realistic, though. Would we really have the room for printed copies of quintillions of bytes of data…?

The Digital Dark Age will no doubt be followed by a digital renaissance, a time when data does not rely on proprietary systems to be read. But in the meantime you need to take steps to ensure that your legacy data doesn’t collapse under its own mass into a digital black hole. The Digital Dark Age is not just a theory. In fact, it’s happening right now. The question here is, “what do you want to do about it?”

While paper is a primitive and unrealistic way to store information (well, it was used by the ancient Egyptians, and we can still read their words thousands of years after they passed into history)…a more logical approach is to assess:

We will discuss those issues – and more – in future installments of our series on the Digital Dark Age.

For a PDF version of this blog entry, please click here.

Bis @BIS_tweets