Digital Dark Age Vs. Electronic Enlightenment

Digital preservation has been highlighted as an issue in the media over the last couple of weeks, after Vint Cerf, Google Vice-President and “Father of the Internet” said we are about to enter a ‘digital Dark Age’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-31450389 .  He believes that we could lose a lifetimes worth of data because of hardware and software obsolescence.

There has been, what I am going to call, an electronic enlightenment over the last 30 years, with very rapid changes of software and hardware. Smartphones now can do more than early computers. When you consider digital storage, a floppy disc couldn’t even hold one image taken on a digital camera today. Yet now you can get external hard drives, as small as a pack of cards, which can hold a lifetimes worth of photographs. Technology is still advancing at a rapid pace in all areas – bigger and cheaper storage, AI, robotics, TV screens you can roll into a tube and things like Google glass. There is potential to record and save data about absolutely every second of your life, if you wanted, but would this data survive even during your lifetime?

The answer is yes, if you managed it properly. Many archives have successfully been working on solutions for digital preservation for many years. Several of these institutions have responded to Vint Cerf’s interview, detailing their work. Jeff James, Chief Executive of The National Archives talked to BBC Radio 4 about safeguarding digital records in their custodianship using ‘parsimonious preservation’. The British Library talked about their work, in such things as the UK Web archive, in this blog post.

Why a ‘digital Dark Age’? Why did this not happen with paper records? One reason is volume of data (records and documents). The electronic enlightenment has made it easy and cheap to produce and store a very large amount of digital data in a very short space of time. When you think of other inventions such as paper and printing presses, costs of production and limited storage space would have had an effect on what records were created and kept. This meant choices had to be made and often only the most important documents to people of the time have survived.

Management of the data produced is also vital. Digital storage is relatively cheap making it easy to store everything and then rely on keyword searches to find it in the future. This has been the preservation strategy for many a company, but one that could lead us to a Dark Age. This is the equivalent to our paper based ancestors throwing everything they have ever written into a room and someone else coming in years later to find a specific item. This would be no easy task even with a limited amount of paper records with no context (e.g. a ledger full of unnamed accounts), index or anyone to interpret the records. Paper records can also become unreadable (obsolete) through flood, fire, acidification, mould or insect damage.

How do you prevent a ‘digital Dark Age’? The principles for preserving digital records are not really much different from paper records. The most important step is managing your data – knowing what you have got and recording/indexing data so people would be able to interpret it with no assistance. Technology we already have available, can then be used to care for them and make sure they are preserved for the future. Several industries such as pharmaceutical and engineering have, for regulatory and other reasons, successfully preserved their digital records for many years. There are even commercial companies that specialise in offering digital preservation systems, such as Preservica and Tessella.

Should we really be keeping everything? The answer is no.  Even if we did save everything and it did happen to survive; it would be a truly epic job for our descendants to look through and consider it all with no interpretation. Choices should be made about what records are important and valuable to us and truly reflect our society, culture and world events (e.g. tweets during the Arab Spring rather than about people’s tea); even if this does raise other issues such as objectivity and the right to be forgotten. On a more personal level, we would probably want to save our digital photographs and blogs rather than say our online order receipts or utility bills. It is our job to preserve the records that will show future generations what was important to us and that truly reflect what living in today’s world is really like.

Sources

Google’s Vint Cerf warns of ‘digital Dark Age’ by Pallab Ghosh on BBC News 13 Feb 2015  http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-31450389  Accessed 21 Feb 2015

Parsimonious preservation: preventing pointless processes!, Tim Gollins. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/information-management/parsimonious-preservation.pdf  Accessed 21 Feb 2015

Preserving our digital heritage, how are we really doing? By British Library Collection Care blog. http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/collectioncare/2015/02/preserving-our-digital-heritage-how-are-we-really-doing.html  Accessed 21 Feb 2015