BEWARE THE DIGITAL DARK AGE
We live in an age where the present moment is perpetually punctuated by an inexorable drive to race into the future. But in our quest to bring the future forward, the record of the present is all too easily abandoned.
As we attempt to view the present day through the lens of the future, the question inevitably turns to what – if anything – we will leave behind. Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science earlier this year, Google vice-president and internet pioneer Vint Cerf warned of a “digital Dark Age” and the threat of digital obsolescence which might leave future generations with little or no record of the 21st century. And when one of the guys who helped found the internet is worried about something, we’d do well to pay attention.
Think of the last time you saw a computer capable of reading a floppy disk. The 3.5-inch floppy has since been pushed into obsolescence by the advent of larger capacity and far more compact USB flash drives, and the data stored on any extant disks has effectively been lost to the majority of folks running current-generation machines. And then there are CD and DVD-ROMs, which while still relatively accessible today, are also on their way out. Apple did away with the optical drive on its MacBook Air as far back as 2008, a design decision that it eventually brought over into the MacBook Pro. Where Apple goes, so does the industry, and optical drives have gradually been disappearing from laptops from other brands as well.
Elsewhere in the tech universe, games – a cultural barometer often intricately entwined with the tech industry – have migrated online and into digital libraries in hoards. Steam, Valve’s digital gamedistribution service, is the go-to platform for the latest titles and has almost eliminated the need for optical drives to run physical copies of games. Valve’s Steam Machines – which will be entirely tied to Steam’s digital library – and those manufactured by other add-on partners are also slated to hit shelves later this year.
But in order to be part of Valve’s push into the living room, games must now be compatible with the Linux-based SteamOS, which means more work on developers’ end to bring their games up to speed. And even though the conversion take-up rate has been quite positive – about 20% of Steam’s almost 5,000-strong game library will now run on SteamOS – the process is still an arbitrary one in which less profitable titles may inevitably slip through the cracks and be lost. Similarly, the announcement of competing services such as NVIDIA’s Grid game-streaming service and its Shield console offers yet another illustration of the work that must be done to ensure that entire digital libraries are playable on new devices and standards. We’re not saying that living room game consoles will entirely replace PCs, but the rapid push to digitize the entire gaming experience and the lack of unified software standards or services to run these games highlights the threat of obsolescence all too well.
Then there are the social media giants, whose digital archives of status updates, tweets, and photo albums represent a far larger record of our present era than any dusty library of floppy disks or Atari game cartridges. Just late last year, Twitpic, a popular image-sharing and hosting service on Twitter closed down after Twitter demanded that it abandon its trademark application or risk losing access to Twitter’s API, without which Twitpic would not be able to function. The move eventually forced Twitpic to close down as it did not have the resources to challenge Twitter legally, and the millions of photos hosted on its servers could have just been lost in the digital ether. Fortunately, Twitpic managed to reach an agreement with Twitter to hand over its domain and photo archive and thus preserve users’ photos. Twitpic’s experience illustrates just how ephemeral our digital libraries are, which begs the question: what happens if today’s social media platforms, digital game libraries or storage formats are supplanted by new standards?
Consumers and businesses turn to the same few corporations for their data storage and sharing needs. Facebook-owned Instagram estimates that a staggering 30 billion photos have since been shared on its site since its launch in 2010, and Facebook itself is an even larger repository of photos, notes, events and status updates. Elsewhere in the cloud, Google and Dropbox offer key file-sharing services for both personal and business uses. Our data is stored on servers owned by a handful of companies, and therein lies the crux of the matter – the data is only there as long as the companies are around to run it. After all, everyone knows what happened to Friendster, which moved to delete user photos, blogs and other digital ephemera in 2011. If you didn’t heed the call to export your photos to another service by the deadline, your digital memories effectively went up in flames.
"The onus is on us to kickstart the movement to preserve present-day hardware, software, and content and ensure that they are still accessible 50 years from now, or risk becoming, in Cerf’s words, a “forgotten century”.”
The digital age illustrates a central irony at the heart of our newfangled technology, which promised us a more permanent record of our lives in digital form. After all, photos fade, discs erode and other physical records are lost, but digitized records suffer from no such problem. In the realm of games, massive online libraries promise unparalleled convenience and accessibility. Your Facebook photo album also certainly looks like it will be around for longer than the family photo album, which could have yellowed over the years or been lost in the move to your new place. But digital files can be lost too as the programs, operating systems and hardware needed to interpret them are continually replaced by new ones.
As Cerf said quite aptly: “We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them, we need to make sure that the digital objects we create today can still be rendered far into the future.” Current digital media often involve three components – the content itself, the application that displays it, and the OS it runs on. Cerf’s solution entails preserving every piece of software and hardware with a digital snapshot of all three components, which can in turn be archived and run on any future machine.
Cerf has termed this concept as “digital vellum”, and Mahadev Satyanarayanan, an experimental computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University in the US, has already demonstrated the possibilities of the idea. Under a collaborative project called Olive, researchers aim to freeze and reproduce all the elements required for the execution of dynamic, digital content. For instance, they have already successfully archived legacy software such as Doom, the classic 1993 first-person shooter, and Microsoft Office 6.0 from the same year. These virtual archives can then be run on a computer that mimics the stable execution environment of obsolete software and the previously defunct program can be accessed.
It’s easy to see how Olive could tie in with Cerf’s idea of “digital vellum”. Olive could have multiple uses in the academic, private and public sectors. For instance, it would enable executable content like datasets and various research tools to remain accessible in the future, and even enable game preservation for future development or analysis. Of course, there would have to be some form of a central archive from which instances of this “digital vellum” could be downloaded and then executed, and standardized descriptions that would provide individual machines with the instructions on how to interpret it meaningfully.
The obvious way to store these virtual archives would be in a cloud server run by government institutions or independent archival organizations. Today, the US Library of Congress is one of the many institutions that are working to digitize audio recordings from a variety of physical media, ranging from wax cylinders from the 1890s to cassette tapes. Its aim is similar to Cerf’s – to ensure that a record of history is preserved for those who wish to access it in the future. If the call to action was strong enough, it seems that a parallel effort could be made to actively advance methods of preserving digital snapshots of modern software and hardware and commit them to cloud servers run by multiple institutions. Already, there are institutions dedicated to the express purpose of cultural preservation, such as the Long Now Foundation, which has – perhaps somewhat ambitiously – committed itself to maintaining a framework for cultural continuity over the next 10,000 years.
It’s easy to take our rapid technological progress for granted. However, it may be time to heed Cerf’s warning and begin investing more resources in projects like Carnegie Mellon’s Olive. We are already experiencing the effects of digital obsolescence today; just ask anyone who has tried to open an old computer file. Scholars today are still able to decipher millennia-old written records, and yet we have trouble accessing content and programs from 20 years before. The onus is on us to kickstart the movement to preserve present-day hardware, software, and content and ensure that they are still accessible 50 years from now, or risk becoming, in Cerf’s words, a “forgotten century”.
“We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them, we need to make sure that the digital objects we create today can still be rendered far into