Shining a Light on the Digital Dark That May Be Coming
As the events to mark the start of the First World War get going this year, you may find it a cause of wonder how much material remains from those days and how we are able to understand so much of what went on in the trenches, at home.
But spare a thought for the future.
There are some who fear that we are headed for a digital dark age, where people know more about the starting decades of the 1900s than the equivalent period of the 2000s.
Three Thousand Billion Billion Bytes
One of those is Roger Highfield director of external affairs at London’s Science Museum. He told The Daily Telegraph on 7 January 2014 that while there are three thousand billion billion bytes of recorded digital information on the planet and rising rapidly, ‘most of this will be lost to future generations.’
He said that we rely on ‘ephemeral recording media’ and ‘soon-to-be-obsolete’ storage devices. Our software depends on planned obsolescence and ‘compulsory upgrades.’
He has a point. Already you can pay specialist companies to transfer your old VHS cassettes onto digital. Who will transfer all the digital data of today – much of it absolute trivia – to the next storage type?
He pointed out how things like a 7th century BC clay tablet from 3500 years ago showing Babylonian observations of Venus can still be seen at the British Museum. Scientists at the Science Museum are creating an Information Age gallery to open this September, but ‘the zeros and ones of digitalised information may easily succumb to technological change.’
He cited the original Domesday Book that William the Conqueror ordered to be made of England, an inventory cum census. The National Archives have it and you can see it. However, the copies made to mark the 900 anniversary were put onto 12 inch laser disks, which are now obsolete. They had to ‘rescued by a digital preservation project.’
Unaccessible Data Is Worthless
Highfield explained that the first email of 1971 is lost and that even, for example, ecology studies at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver published between 1991 and 2011 are not all available. From the past two years, data is still readable, and then the odds on that data any further back being opened fall 17% per year.
He felt the future will have little interest in selfies, pictures, videos that will die with your hard drive. But the results from ‘particle accelerators, medical records and economic data are crucial for a rerun of experiments, new analyses or to check for errors or fraud.’
If scientists had to submit their data to a public archive on publication, that may help. But he said that ‘many digital formats cannot be trusted to last more than a decade.’
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva presents a good illustration. That generates 15 petabytes per year of data ‘where one petabyte equals 210,000 DVDs.’ How can that be stored safely for the future?
Is There a Natural Solution?
Even the Cloud is only as good as the equipment that can access it. Highfield suggested that better than ever better ways of compressing data, microfilm and acid-free papers, DNA may be the answer.
He said we already know that DNA is a ‘robust way to store information’ which we can extract from bones going back thousands of years.
Scientists working at EMBL, the European Bioinformatics Institute near Cambridge, have created a method to store ‘two thousand million million bytes per gram of DNA.’
One of them, Ewan Birney, reckoned ‘that should take care of our archiving needs.’ Let’s hope he’s right. Highfield concluded with ‘combined with diligent archiving and preservation, DNA stores could signal the beginning of the end of our digital doomsday.’
Other blogs stored in our archive:
A Few of the Things That Most People Can No Longer Do, 30 December 2013
Some People Have Seen the Future: It’s a Legal Minefield, 26 November 2013
Time-Lapse Photography Is a Form of Time Travel Accessible to All, 20 November 2013
In the Future, The Average Is History, the Machine Is King, 30 September 2013
Computer Grids Could Unlock Power to Benefit Mankind, 10 September 2013
Does the Past Matter When We’re All Going Forwards? 15 July 2013
Forward to the Past as Polaroids Make a Comeback, 25 March 2013
How Technology Serves the Past, Present and Future, 14 September 2012