The digital dark age:

How will future generations view our time when all the evidence gets lost in the ones and zeroes?

By Ben Olson
Reader Staff

You know those scrapbooks your parents kept on the bookshelf? They had photos of your ancestors, all looking slightly morose in black and white, with their funny fashions and poses? Well, they may be more important than you think.

Historians often look to early photographic evidence to denote everyday lifestyles of those who have lived in the past. They look to styles of dress, early models of technology, everyday activities caught on film.

Now imagine if those photographs were no longer available. Imagine if all photographs weren’t available, or rather, impossible to access because technology has either failed or surpassed obsolete forerunners so quickly as to leave it unattainable.

Enter the Digital Dark Age.

What is the digital dark age? Well, we’re in it now. It refers to people’s dangerous habit of storing their keepsake photographs and documents in digital form alone, forgoing any tangible copy.

Google Vice President Vint Cerf is recognized as one of the “fathers of the Internet.” Recently, he told BBC that he was concerned that all images and documents we have been saving on computers will eventually be lost because hardware and software becomes obsolete so quickly.

Cerf fears that future generations will have little or no record of the 21st century, creating a “digital black hole,” for future generations to ponder over.

“I worry a great deal about that,” he told BBC. “Old formats of documents that we’ve created … may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backwards compatibility is not always guaranteed.

“And so what can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is.”

Real examples of this occur all the time. Ever had a hard drive crash? Or a computer stolen when you hadn’t backed anything up? I have had both happen, and it’s devastating to lose a decade of photographs and documents.

Another more famous example lies with NASA, whose early space records have gone missing or unaccounted for more than once. Magnetic tapes from the 1976 Viking Mars landing went unprocessed for more than a decade. When they were finally analyzed, the data was wholly unreadable because it was in an unknown format and the original programmers had either died or left NASA.

The images were finally extracted after the brightest minds in the country spent months struggling over archaic technology. They were lucky they preserved the data. If they hadn’t, would that mission have been a complete wash?

The fact that all of our precious memories exist as ones and zeroes is a problem Mike Hammersberg knows all too much about.

Hammersberg first started working at Image Maker Photo and Video in Sandpoint in 1992, before the days of digital cameras. In 2007, he and his wife Randi took over as owners. In 23 years, he has seen the industry change dramatically.

“I remember thinking, ‘This digital photo stuff will never last,’” he said. “Of course, this was when it was 1.2 megapixel and you couldn’t get a good print out of them.”

Hammersberg urges his customers to keep their photos safe by storing them in three separate forms: on a computer, on a separate hard drive, and, most importantly, with a photographic print.

“You don’t have the image until you have the print,” said Hammersberg. “It’s so easy to lose the ones and zeroes. A photograph is something written on paper—what comes up on your screen isn’t real. It’s just electrons.”

Many horror stories have passed across the counter at Image Maker, usually involving lost photos or data.

“I had a good customer that came in all the time with film,” he said. “She went digital and put all her images on a computer and one day came into the shop in tears. She had transferred her images from one computer to another, which crashed after six months, and she didn’t have a backup. They couldn’t recover anything. She lost every single one of her pictures, and she was devastated.”

While Hammersberg wonders what the future will hold for camera shops like his, he also worries about what the future generations will deduce about our time.

“I’m worried about my daughter Michaella,” he said. “In sixty, seventy years, where will her grandchildren find the images of this time, of her children?”

Nowadays, everything happens in the “cloud,” which is a buzzword that essentially means the software and services you once stored on your individual computer is now stored and accessed through the Internet.

While there are many benefits of cloud computing—ease of data recovery, worldwide accessibility of data and services—the essential flaw is that if the Internet goes down, your services and data are not available.

What happens if the Internet fails for good? Will we roam the vast wasteland of America in steampunk vehicles and fight tribal wars over dwindling resources? Will we collapse into a post-apocalyptic meltdown and enter the age of cannibalism? Will we die out because we’re too stupid to do anything without asking Google first?

Imagine we are wiped out as a civilization, much like the Anasazi, a Native American culture that emerged in the Four Corners area of the United States around 1200 BC.

These early Puebloans were hunters and gatherers who lived in shallow pit houses, while the later civilizations carved whole towns out of nearby cliffs like those found at Mesa Verde.

Around 1300 BC, they abandoned their cliff houses and scattered. Nobody really understands why, though some scholars think that a population explosion coupled with a drought and poor farming methods harkened the collapse.

The point is, we know about the Anasazis because they left artifacts behind; pottery shards, woven baskets, reed sandals, rabbit fur robes, grinding stones and bows and arrows, and lest we forget, the homes they had carved out of a mountainside.

Historians are able to piece together what type of people the Anasazis were, what type of society they had, what they ate, how they lived.

Now imagine if nothing was left behind. What could historians deduce about us, in a thousand years, by looking at a bunch of broken plastic, shredded copper wires, cathodes and microchip pieces ground into nothing?

That’s just what they would know about us… nothing.

So what do we do? Well, we start finding a way to leave something tangible behind. We make prints of our treasured memories and keep them safe in scrapbooks and shoe boxes.

Cerf is promoting a bigger plan. He wants to preserve every piece of software and hardware so that it never becomes obsolete—just like what happens in a museum—but in digital form.

“The solution is to take an X-ray snapshot of the content and the application and the operating system together,” he told the BBC, “With a description of the machine that it runs on, and preserve that for long periods of time. And that digital snapshot will recreate the past in the future.”

The concept, which Cerf refers to as “digital vellum” may be the only tangible way to preserve the photos that matter, aside from making a print, which, if stored properly, will last indefinitely.

“If it’s important to you, make a print,” said Hammersberg. “I want my great grandkids to see who I was.”

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