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Are we heading for a digital dark age?

Are we heading for a digital dark age?

As any medieval historian will tell you, the “Dark Ages” refer to a lack of contemporary written sources about the period, rather than a technological dearth. Now data specialists are beginning to worry that when historians look back at the 21st century, they’ll see something similar.

With so much data archived on degrading compact discs and magnetic tape, as well as obsolete formats, there’s a risk that all that knowledge will be lost. More perilous still is knowledge that has been born digital and exists only in the cloud. When it’s wiped or superseded, it’s gone forever. No hard copies exist to survive a cataclysmic event.

An example can be found from 1986 when the BBC in the UK created a new “Domesday Book”, documenting British life at the end of the 20th century. The project involved over a million pieces of information and photographs gathered by school children and it was collated using cutting edge technology…of the time. By the dawn of the 21st century, the laser disks were unreadable, and some thought the data lost forever. It took specialists on both sides of the Atlantic to emulate the software, and another decade for the information to be made available.

Without the resources available to rescue this prestige project, one wonders what will be lost in the near future…

We may know less about the early 21st century that we do about the early 20th century.

- Rick West, Head of Data for Google

Scientists warn we may be creating a ‘digital dark age’

Digital Domesday book unlocked (BBC News, 2002)

Domesday Project reborn online after 25 years (BBC News, 2011)

Featured image credit: Fernando Lavin