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Category — Digital Dark Age

Are We Facing a “Digital Dark Age?”

David Rosenthal

Last October I gave a talk to the Alumni of Humboldt University in Berlin as part of the celebrations of their 200th anniversary. It was entitled “Are We Facing A ‘Digital Dark Age?'”. Below is an edited text of this talk, which was aimed at a non-technical audience.

What is digital preservation and why is it interesting to work on? For millennia, society has relied on paper as its archival memory medium, its way to preserve future generation’s access to information. Paper has many advantages for this task. It is cheap, needs no special equipment to read and, best of all, survives benign neglect very well. Put it in a box in the basement and it is good for 100 years.

Rothenberg’s Dystopian Vision
But less and less of today’s culture and science ever makes it to paper. In 1995 Jeff Rothenberg wrote an article in Scientific American that first drew public attention to the fact that digital media have none of these durable properties of paper. The experience he drew on was the rapid evolution of digital storage media such as tapes and floppy disks, and of applications such as word processors each with their own incompatible format. His vision can be summed up as follows: documents are stored on off-line media which decay quickly, whose readers become obsolete quickly, as do the proprietary, closed formats. If this wasn’t enough, operating systems and hardware change quickly in ways that break the applications that render the documents.

Distrust of digital storage continues to this day. Cathy Marshall, a researcher at Microsoft, vividly describes the attitudes of ordinary users to the loss of their digital memories in a talk called Its Like A Fire, You Just Have To Move On”. [Read more →]

March 6, 2013   No Comments

Jeff Rothenberg: Digital Preservation in Perspective

How far have we come, and what’s next?

After a brief review of the history of digital preservation, this talk presents Jeff Rothenberg’s perspective on where the field stands now and what remains to be done. It will conclude by posing some challenges and questions intended to stimulate further thinking.

Rothenberg, who retired in 2010 from The RAND Corporation in Santa Monica, is a computer scientist who has written and spoken extensively on the subject of digital preservation for the past 20 years, while consulting with archives, libraries, and museums in the U.S. and Europe. His 1995 Scientific American article, “Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents“, helped bring the problems of digital longevity to the attention of researchers and practitioners in many fields.

What is digital longevity? (From Jeff’s personal web site.)
Every digital document is encoded in a binary format of some kind. The resulting bitstream must be interpreted by some process–typically a computer program–that understands the document’s format in order to “render” it into a form that humans can perceive (read, view, hear, etc.). But digital formats and the programs that render them become obsolete very quickly, as do the computers on which they run, making it unlikely that our grandchildren will be able to use the digital documents, records and art-works we are currently creating, unless we take appropriate action. The papers and reports referenced on this page discuss the dimensions of this problem and analyze a number of potential solutions, including migration into successive new formats, the re-encoding of documents into some universal formalism, and the future emulation of obsolete computers to allow a document’s original rendering software to be run indefinitely.

February 4, 2013   No Comments