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Posts Tagged ‘digital media’

Welcome to the New Dark Age.

How’s that, you say? Let me explain.

We are moving through a time when the majority of information is being stored digitally, and only digitally. Memos, letters, pictures, books, even movies, all only exist—in an increasingly large percentage—only as binary ones and zeroes on some form of digital media. Add to this all the information that exists only on websites, and you have a staggering amount if information that is, essentially, ephemeral. The British Library warns that we are already losing information, some of it important cultural information, from websites that come and go with the cultural tides. Additionally, irreplaceable scientific data may have already been lost through our inexorable march from one media to the other.

Have any old cassette tapes? Any old 3.5″ floppy disks? A tape drive for your old PC? Have any music or video stored in MP2 format? I do, and all that data—old music, pictures, stories, poems—is lost because I can no longer access it.

Let me put it this way: I have, on my desk, an edition of the Bible, printed in 1701 (pictured), complete with explications and marginalia. I can read this just as easily today as Isaac Newton could have (okay, not quite as easily, as my Latin isn’t as good as his was). I have a book, purchased in the late 90s, for use with my REB1000 eBook reader (yes, I was one of the first to try an e-reader). I cannot read it. My REB1000 is long gone, and the book’s proprietary format is indecipherable. Think about that: I can read the first book, in its original form, three centuries after it was published, and yet I can’t even view the one I bought less than twenty years ago. And don’t get me started on how many times I’ve had to buy The White Album…

Fast-forward 300 years…what will future historians find, looking back on this time? All the websites from our time are gone (What? You think Google is backing them up? Think again!). All the music, stored and delivered digitally, is in a format they can’t decode. Billions upon billions of photos, personal and professional, were lost simply through hard drive crashes. And books? The explosion of the e-book/e-reader market crushed the hardcopy publishing industry and many books, bestsellers in their day, were published only in electronic format. Think that 300-year old Kindle will fire up?

It’s not that we can’t retain all this data, and it’s not that we can’t transfer or convert all these media as new formats emerge. It’s just that we aren’t doing so.

As a species, we have all the foresight of a bug flying down the interstate. Time and again, we simply do not see the semi heading toward us until we’re splattered on the windscreen. The future may look bright and shiny, from our point of view, but from up there in the future, the view back may be much darker than we imagine.

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