Risks of a digital Dark Age in a Post-scarcity era

"Obsolete Screens" by Ben Raynal

“Obsolete Screens” by Ben Raynal

Toward the end of the interview, my father mentioned that he sometimes fears that we may be setting ourselves up for another Dark Age.  He noted that digital correspondence has less permanence than its analog predecessor seemed to have. While some had the habit of saving hand written letters and postcards, hardly anyone seems to take the effort to preserve emails, let alone messages sent through Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp or Google Hangouts. My mother also mentioned that she’s concerned about obsolescence and the possibility that it could cause the loss of personal digital memory cues. The devices and digital filetypes we use today may not be easily accessible if at all in the future.

The idea of a digital Dark Age has been around for a while, probably sparked by the Y2k scare. The 2004 German documentary The Digital Dark Age described the risks associated with technological obsolescence, and the efforts combating them. Organisations like The Long Now and The Internet Archive are putting the risk of a digital Dark Age associated short term thinking on the agenda.

One striking example of the threat of the digital Dark Age through obsolescence is actually provided by a project related to its more well known namesake. In 1986, the BBC decided to harness the power of modern computing to make a modern version of the Domesday Book, a famous book containing all owners and their possessions in England in 1066. The book was made by order of William the Conquerer, who had just conquered England, to help him to levy taxes.  The making of this book was an undertaking of epic proportions, of course. It was finally finished in 1986. For the 900 year anniversary of the completion of the book, the BBC asked Britons to write down what they thought would be of interest to people a thousand years from today. This resulted in 147,819 pages of text articles and 23,225 amateur photos, that were stored on the newest high-tech digital storage medium: a LaserDisc, approximately the size of a vinyl record. While this medium was thought, at least by those managing the project at the BBC, to be the future, it didn’t catch on. As time went on, drives that could read the discs, and computers that could handle the software stored thereon became more and more rare. If no one had intervened, there was a real possibility that all collected data would have been lost forever. Luckily, someone did intervene: from 1999 onward several parties worked on emulating the software needed to read the data on the discs, and making durable copies of the original discs. The contents have also been put on the internet, for everyone to use. This story illustrates that digital media are prone to obsolescence, and require frequent maintenance and updates. All the while, the original 1086 Domesday Book remains uncorrupted and legible. It only needs to be kept safe from moisture, bugs, fire and excessive light.

Domesday project 1987

A computer with a LaserDisc drive running the Domesday Project software (Wikimedia Commons)

Usually only thought of in terms of obsolesence and continuity, or of the perishability or corruptability of media. Implies that the technology itself is where most danger lies. Rarely spoken about the danger of transition, which stems from the user rather than the medium. This is the danger that my father referred to, and that I have observed myself in the situation of my parents. In many cases the analog tradition of preserving memory cues is replaced by a digital tradition. These may not completely overlap, though. In the case of my parents, my mother had completely abandoned documenting special occasions in the analog tradition. For a while, she still took the responsibility of taking pictures with a digital camera, but this became more and more infrequent. Furthermore, all pictures were still managed and preserved by my father, who therefore had a strong influence on what was kept and how it was displayed. After my mother got a smartphone, she stopped using the camera all together. A new tradition to use the smartphone to document occasions had not yet formed, however. In practice, over the years my father had more and more become the primary producer, selector and custodian of our family’s memory cues. His way of doing these things was very different from my mother’s, as I write in this post. The switch in traditions, and the switch in roles, have made gap in our family’s memory cues.

But so what if we lose a bit of data? A few email, a website here and there, big deal. We pump out these things by the billions every day, so we can afford to lose a few, right? There will be plenty of sources left for future historians to work with. We live in what media theorist Andrew Hoskins calls a post-scarcity culture. Hoskins argues that “[t]here is a new contagion of the past driven by a memorial culture unstoppably equipped with the availability, portability and pervasiveness of digital devices, enabling the instant aggregation and archiving of everything”.[1] In other words: modern technology practically erases the limits of what we can save. We can capture every moment, save every memory cue. But if you can save everything, how do you choose what to actually save? With the limits of the analog tradition, its guidance has also disappeared. The easier messages are to send, the more ubiquitous and abundant they become, and the less likely you are to put any effort into composing, let alone preserving them. The same goes for photographs, videos, and so on.

It might well be that in a few centuries we will find that there are far fewer sources left for historians to study than you’d expect based on the vast numbers we produce everyday. It’s a real possibility that most of our emails, instagrams, tweets and blogposts are not durable at all. Many have noted the dangers that digital data faces, but most have pointed towards more technical reasons. Besides the dangers of losing data due to decay, obsolescence or some apocalyptic event (like a worldwide electromagnetic storm knocking out all electronics, or like Facebook going bankrupt), there is also a rising danger of memory cues no longer being produced. The new digital traditions, often part of post-scarcity culture, don’t produce the same memory cues that the analog tradition did. I believe that the dangers inherent in transition combined with carelessness about media caused by living in a post-scarcity era are just as real, and probably more fundamental. Even if we manage to preserve everything we produce, what is the use if all we’ve got are instagrams of our lunch and selfies?

[1] Andrew Hoskins, “7/7 and Connective Memory: Interactional Trajectories of Remembering in Post-Scarcity Culture.” Memory Studies 4, no. 3 (July 1, 2011): 269–80

Cover image: “Obsolete Screens” by Ben Raynal, 2011. Via Flickr.com (creative commons licence)

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One thought on “Risks of a digital Dark Age in a Post-scarcity era

  1. Susan Aasman says:

    excellent post!


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