The dawn of the Digital Dark Age threatens us with ‘bit rot’

Chad Earnest

Currently, we all are experiencing the wonders of what is now referred to as the Information Age, which signifies the shifting of data from analog and print sources to digital ones. It is rather difficult to imagine anything different from our current mobile devices, laptops and desktops in terms of information retrieval and storage. Current configurations certainly stray away from the command line systems that were prevalent in the 1970s.

Today, we benefit from graphical operating systems (Windows or Mac OS are fairly common), full color displays and most importantly, a hard disk. Although solid state drives (these are in your smartphone) are becoming fairly common, hard disks are still the most-used due to the lower cost and a general higher level of storage space. Although these devices fail over time, individuals have come to see the digital files themselves as being permanent and not subject to direct degradation.

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It’s easy to say that physical and analog sources of information fade away with the harsh impact of time and environmental degradation, but the digital revolution has ended such concerns. With cloud storage, flash memory and the general ability to back up files onto external storage devices, individuals rarely see any sort of danger concerning the loss of data. With so many different services available for use, one can easily back up a full digital library in a redundant and well-spread-out manner. Data centers are usually placed near central fiber-optic lines, away from fault lines and inland to avoid water damages. Aside from cloud storage providing the highest protection against data loss (except against solar flares), higher longevity and lower costs are about to be incurred due to a new form of tape storage that IBM is developing. This new type of tape drive is supposed to increase the data longevity up to three decades with encryption being directly implemented into the film itself. So data access and retrieval doesn’t seem to be an issue today, but what about accessing the files in the future?  

Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet and the vice president of Google, is now warning of a new type of degradation threat: “bit rot.”

Bit rot is basically created by a sort of planned obsolescence in software, and the formats associated with that software. As an example, Microsoft phased out Windows XP officially in 2014, which now won’t install on most newer computers.

In essence, a newer version of a piece of software may not recognize the older file format, which could lead to the file being corrupted or unable to be viewed. This phenomenon relates to what is now being called the Digital Dark Age. No, this is not referring to humans destroying all forms of technology and going back to the dark ages, but is rather humanity’s loss of data due to new technology’s inability to read a particular set of file formats.

Cerf has stated that an entire century of information stands to be lost — the 21st century in this case. Much like looking at inscriptions imprinted on rock by an ancient civilization, a simple family photo taken during the 2000s could become unreadable by future generations living less than half a century later. Although Adobe, Microsoft, the OpenDocument protocol and the Internet Archive project have all attempted to provide a universal way to view and preserve digital files, there are still many constraints present.

Preservation through the PDF and OpenDocument formats are welcome, but an insufficient step toward the No. 1 preventer of the Digital Dark Age stands in the way: standardization.

Personally, I believe in what Vint Cerf has spoken about thoroughly considering other examples that have occurred back in the ’90s in the case of NASA’s archives. Cerf’s proposal is a digital vellum or a digital snapshot of not just a file format or program, but basically the whole computer that the program is running on. Think of preserving a Word 2013 document on your personal computer by taking the whole computer and storing everything about that particular system onto the cloud, or some other storage source. This has been achieved through the use of virtual machines in a sense, but there is one fundamental problem with them: They are reliant on particular operating systems to function. This seems to create a loop of sorts, but that doesn’t mean that the concept couldn’t be applied in another manner.

One way that I find particularly intriguing is just issuing one common and open Linux-based operating system for everyone to utilize, regardless of what device is being used. Such an operating system would include all of the software standards that have been amassed over the past century essentially, and would be able to open any program without an issue — a digital vellum, essentially, based on one operating system that is constantly updated by different sources.

An idea such as this is impossible considering the need for profiting off of operating systems (Apple and Microsoft are the biggest offenders of this), as well as the presence of intellectual property laws and personal preferences. Not to mention the kind of data that would need to be sifted through to make this happen, which just on the Internet is now set at 4.4 trillion gigabytes of information. So, this would create a bit of a quandary in my proposed solution to this problem. Constraints may be the key here, considering that one of them relates to scale and focus of implementation. In terms of scale, the creation of a digital vellum could be left to major data focused companies to compile and eventually be implemented into something like the already-present Internet Archive.

More than likely, my proposed solution would be implemented into one operating system that is solely dedicated to preserving digital files. The Library of Congress could be a curator of something like this, with major companies periodically keeping the hardware and software up-to-date to ensure longevity.  

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Since the Internet will still be in use way into the future, individuals could access the operating system as a resource to view or convert a file source. Aside from being a digital genealogy nightmare, the focus of creating an archive based around a single operating system will ensure that ever-needed standardization is achieved. Relating back to the new tape drives that IBM is creating, encryption will be directly embedded into the film itself. If future generations are to read this information, then it will need to be known how to decrypt the data, which will have to be another consideration into creating a digital vellum. However, until something like this is implemented, users will have to keep up with file formats themselves or rely on cloud storage exclusively to upgrade file formats. There is a solution to this problem, but it will require significant resource pooling amongst large data-focused companies to bring it to fruition.

Collegian Columnist Chad Earnest can be reached at letters@collegian.com, or on Twitter @churnest.