"Dark Ages" is a term used by historians for centuries to describe the period of European history from roughly 476 AD to 1000 AD. Although problematic as a historical label (Mommsen 227), the term was used to describe the loss of ancient learning and "the lapse of Europe into five centuries of intellectual silence" from which "little evidence of [intellectual activity] survived the years of wars, famine, plague, religious dissent, and neglect" (Bergeron xxv). Much of what we do know of classical learning is a result of the painstaking work of monks and missionaries who translated and archived works they deemed important in secluded monasteries or church libraries. While we don't face the same socio-political concerns of the first "Dark Ages," we must concern ourselves with our own pending crisis of cultural memory, the deterioration of which can already be observed; many of the mission tapes storing data from the 1976 Viking Mars mission have decayed beyond readability, and the hardware to read many of the US Government's records of the Vietnam War no longer exists (Bergeron 4).
Digital content developers are in a unique position as produces of culture. Traditional artists rely on their artifacts to speak for them; a framed newspaper clipping, a photograph in a magazine, a painting hanging in a museum. As technology expands the range of artistic modes through which art can be composed, the technological artifacts we produce lose that tangibility; digital art can hang in a gallery but most digital content exists as a collection of bits sitting in the ephemeral space of a disk.
Digital content developers are in a unique position because they not only produce cultural artifacts but because they must also preserve them; if content developers do not accept this responsibility, and this new and important aspect of our culture is not actively preserved, we may very well face a situation in which our progeny may not be able to recover our history in the way monks in the middle ages recovered ancient knowledge.
Several types of obsolescence contribute to the death of digital data. For example, data is effectively lost when the software to read it no longer exists or newer versions of the software cannot read "legacy files." Many software companies, particularly well-established developers like Microsoft and Adobe, develop upgraded software in this way deliberately to compel users of older versions, "including those who'd prefer to keep using older versions" (cite) to buy newer versions of their products, maintaining their revenue streams but making data stored on older versions of their products unreadable.
One strategy many content developers have adopted to combat this lack of backwards compatibility is commonly known as "migration." A user who can no longer continue using Microsoft Word 97, for example, might "migrate" her data by using a newer version of Word to open her older files, resaving them in the newer format. Though migration ensures that files will continue to be readable, some experts disagree with this strategy, arguing that each migration leads to minor changes in formatting or coding, changes which will eventually add up to serious flaws; Jeff Rothenberg compares migration to "preserving a Picasso by repainting it every few years."
Another threat to the survival of digital content is the longevity of the medium it's stored on. The Digital Preservation Tutorial features a "Chamber of Horrors" of once-ubiquitous media that are no longer readable on standard computers, including the 3 ¼ inch floppy disk which is rapidly approaching obsolescence. The life span of the storage medium is also a crucial factor in the survival of digital data. CDs and DVDs are composed of aluminum which will gradually rust and are extremely sensitive to scratches and fingerprints. Magnetic disc media (hard drives, floppy disks, etc) are "subject to the same problems that beset a car that has been stored for years in a garage . . . lubrication dies out, leaving bearings dry and without protection, rubber becomes brittle, and plastic parts deform" (Bergeron 64).
Processes like migration pose potential solutions for medium mortality. "Bitstream copying" involves making "an exact duplicate of a digital object," addressing issues of media failure such as a hard drive crash. Making multiple copies of data and storing in remote locations can help guarantee the survival of data; "giving data away is like having more children to increase the odds that progeny will survive into the next generation" (Bergeron 237). "Refreshing" is a process that "addresses both decay and obsolescence issues related to the storage media" because it involves the transfer of files from one medium to another. For example, one's data could be "refreshed" by transferring files stored on an old Jazz disc to a new CD-R or a USB Flash drive. Doing this ensures that data will survive at least as long as the new media is not damaged or it becomes obsolete, which should be a considerable time considering their widespread support.
The material we create as digital content developers is different from traditional forms of cultural production; our art exists in a state where it can't be accessed unless we have a third party (the computer) interpret it and display it for us. We have a unique responsibility, then, as writers and as artists, because we are producers of culture but we must also be archivists. It is true that, in the end, there is nothing we can do to stop the eventual disintegration of our work; "eventually, even within a controlled environment, and over a hundred years, hard disks and floppy disks will become demagnetized and lose their data" (Bergeron 82-83). However, in the here and now, there are practical moves we can make to ensure that we leave behind our digital content as the cultural memory that our decendants deserve.
is a graduate student in the Digital Rhetoric & Professional Writing program at Michigan State University. He enjoys martial arts, photography and long walks on the beach.