Digital Dark Age Ahead?

The Analogue Counter-Revolution, Part 5
Part 1:
Step Away from the Computer
Part 2: iPad, Therefore I Am
Part 3: Life between the Cracks
Part 4: The Tyranny of Google

Scholars from the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt once roamed the world to locate, copy, and catalogue the literary masterpieces of antiquity -- works of poetry, science, history, and religion -- so that the accumulated wisdom of the ancients would pass safely to future generations.

It was not to be.  The Great Library, founded in the 3rd century B.C. by the Greek-speaking Ptolemaic dynasty, did not survive the convulsions of history, nor did the bulk of its treasures.  No one is really sure how or why -- Julius Caesar's army, accidental fire, and the hordes of Muhammad have all been variously proposed.

We may never know how exactly the library vanished, but we can be certain of the consequences -- a shocking dearth of the great intellectual and artistic works of deep antiquity has come down to us.  Those works that have survived are known largely because farsighted monks in the Dark Ages labored in the far corners of the West to hand-copy those authors they knew and loved (see Thomas Cahill's book How the Irish Saved Civilization for a thrilling account of this process).  Still, their efforts, while valiant, were insufficient to save the vast majority of classical works from disappearing forever.

You may think that digital technology will preclude such a catastrophic loss of culture ever happening again.  In fact, our dependence on digitally stored information has all but guaranteed a new informational Dark Age.

Digital information is merely a collection of ones and zeros that requires software to be translated for us.  As computer scientist Jeff Rothenberg has noted, "[m]ost people haven't recognized that digital stuff is encoded in some format that requires software to render it in a form that humans can perceive. ... Software that knows how to render those bits becomes obsolete.  And it runs on computers that become obsolete."

Indeed, the vast abundance of digital information showcases its terrifyingly evanescent nature.  Computer software, essentially a digital-to-human translation system, is updated on the average every year and a half, and hardware more often than that.  New systems read only some of what was encoded in older systems, and then often only in the most recent iterations.  Very quickly, the gulf between what is stored and what can be accessed becomes unbridgeable.  Try slipping a floppy disk into your iPad to work on that novel you started in college.

The danger is that as more and more of our lives is committed to digital, only some portions of that data will be transferred to new media, and the losses will compound with each successive generation.  Eventually you are left with a gaping hole in history, a vast ocean of unrecoverable information rotting away in obsolete machines.

Of course, if, instead of saving your college novel on a floppy disk, you had typed it out on paper and stuck it in a drawer, you could easily pull it out again and start working on it twenty years later -- no translation software required.  It just goes to show that the printed page, bound or rolled in traditional ways, is an astonishingly durable medium.  Under the right conditions, it can last centuries -- or longer.

The correspondence of John and Abigail Adams, for example, is now over two hundred years old.  It has become a testament to one of the world's great and enduring loves.  The letters themselves were saved and passed on, and they are now housed in various private and scholarly collections.  The paper and ink carried their love, then kept it safe, for them to read and treasure -- and now for us to read and treasure.

Now people write e-mails, entirely disposable ephemera conveying utterly disposable thoughts.  Perhaps, unlike when the intellectual achievements of the Great Library of Alexandria went up in smoke, when the Digital Dark Age arrives, we will not have lost much that was worth keeping anyway.