Digital Dark Age is Real

February 2017 | Dios Kurniawan

Few days ago I realized that all my family video tapes stored in MiniDV format from the year 2002 to 2011 were simply unreadable. Not because they are defective, but because my MiniDV camcorder refuses to turn on – most likely because of its 15-year-old age. It is terrifying to see that suddenly I lost years of memory just because I do not have the hardware to play it back. Sure, I can always buy a new camcorder, but MiniDV is an obsolete video format and not many manufacturers still produce the hardware today.

Luckily I have transferred all videos to DVD discs, but the original raw uncompressed video – with higher quality than what’s stored in DVD’s MPEG-2 format – remains in those tapes, so I am left with a pile of video tapes which are as good as useless.

My video album in MiniDV tapes

This made me realize that the threat of “Digital Dark Age” was real. Digital Dark Age refers to a possible dystopian situation when our future generation cannot read our history records that we store in digital media. This can be compared to the first “Dark Age” in the mid ages after the fall of Roman Empire when most record of history on civilization was lost.

MiniDV is a relatively young digital format introduced in late 1990’s, but with the rise of flash storage technology, tape technology has slowly faded away from consumer electronics. Imagine your collection of memorable moments, photos, videos and documents you have amassed in the last 20 years in tapes would be unreadable if you don’t quickly migrate to the new technology. Digital Dark Age is looming over our lives.

Another example that digital dark age is upon us: In 1997, I published a book (see my book here), it was printed few thousands copies and they sold pretty well. Now, 20 years later, I still have the physical copy of my book, but I don’t have the digital copy anymore because the computer that I used to write the book in 1997 has gone forever.

Many digital formats have come to obsolescence and have finally extinct. Remember floppy disk? It used to be the most popular media to store computer files in 1980’s. Nobody uses it anymore, but there must be tons files are still stored in floppy disks which have not been migrated to a new storage media.

The same is true for CD-ROM, DVD, hard drive, USB flash disk, etc. Not one person in this world can guarantee that in 50-100 years time, someone will still own the device to read and extract the information.

My PATA hard disk, CD-ROM and Floppy Disks (remember them?)

Even if the files in the legacy digital media can be restored, there is still a big probability that we do not possess the software for reading the files in their original format. Those who were raised in 1980’s to early 1990’s most likely have used PCs to write documents using old word processing software which does not exist anymore. Remember Wordstar and Wordperfect? Can we open the files properly today?

JPEG format may be the de facto standard for storing digital pictures today, but who can guarantee that the algorithm to decompress JPEG images will still be known by the future generations in 100 or 200 years from now?

Cloud storage is also a vulnerability. We are accustomed to store our photos in Google Photos, Dropbox or Apple iCloud and think they will be safe there. Are we 100% sure that Google and Apple will still in business 100 years from now?

Large organizations are now relying on Big Data technology to store and process data in large amount. They put files in Hadoop File System with multiple different compression formats. How can we ensure that in 20 years the data will still be readable?

If we do not do something in controlling our way in storing digital data, we are risking the possibility that our grand children will never be able to read our records. History would be lost forever. I recommend that from now on, all of us make physical copies of our most important photos and documents to preserve them.