Sunday, February 7, 2016

The coming digital dark age

    The proliferation of information technology in the waning years of the 20th century and the dawning years of the 21st is an undeniable trend. Its benefits are widely praised: the linking of disparate populations, the spread of knowledge, and cultural appreciation. One factor that remains little discussed in the move towards the uploading of all human knowledge to the digital cloud is the longevity and security of this information.
    The trend of closing physical libraries in favour of digital lending libraries is worrying. Books have survived in libraries, archives, monasteries, porcelain jars, and other various places for hundreds and occasionally even thousands of years. A book from the medieval period may continue to be a source of new information to those of us to seek to study the past. Is digital media so durable?
    Many of us are familiar with CDs, a dying but remarkably persistent media format. The life expectancy of a compact disc for example is approximately 20 years; thus, perhaps 30 years after the final CD is manufactured, every bit of information stored on them will become corrupted. Hard drives and other forms of digital storage, though they may last longer, will also die. A computer from 20 years ago, if it has not been already been recycled or demolished, may be in a poor state. Even if the data manages to survive, the ability and knowledge to access it may not.
    One unforeseen side effect of this drive to digitise is denying future historians the information they will need to draw effective conclusions about our society, similar to the drought in historical information from the so-called 'Dark Ages' following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in Europe. Little by little, the historical record of our times will fade away due to lack of preserved hard copies of information which can survive crises and disasters such as social, economic, or ecological collapse. To believe ourselves immune to this would be stunningly arrogant.
    Does the only hope for our civilisation really remain in the uploading of all human information to the Cloud, with backups upon backups? Such a solution denies the physical nature of our existence, and completes the death of such simple pleasures as the smell of an old book, the clack of a typewriter, the vibrations of a musical instrument, and other waning elements of our culture and society. We must learn to appreciate such novelties, and to support our libraries and the timeless purpose they serve.

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