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.

HWM (Singapore) - - Front Page - by Ko­hWanzi

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

the fu­ture.”

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