Technology, information and the future

Mukul Sharma writes in the Times of India about a digital dark age

You’ve scanned those old fading family photographs that were yellowing in 30 and 40-year-old albums, touched up scratches, added missing pixels
and resized them using Photoshop or Corel 12 and safely digitised them to a disc. Now you can relax knowing that the perishable past is available in pristine form to whoever wants to access in on screen afterwards. Or can you?

What about, say, 20 years later when your grandchildren discover the CD and want to see what it contains? Where will they get a drive to run it on? What software’s going to be around to interpret the data? Would they even know what a CD is? If the trend so far is any indication, two decades down the line computers will not be configured to access some antique outdated technology. Just like if you still have some stuff on five-inch floppies from the late 1980s Wordstar era, what are the chances you can view it today on the latest laptop running Word? Zilch. And as far as those photos are concerned, just when you thought you’d made some family history immortal, turns out you’ve actually doomed it.

Welcome to what some people are calling a digital dark age looming over the horizon.

A similar problem is the one involving warning future generations about the location and dangers of nuclear waste burial sites-

Much of the waste is supposed to be kept isolated for 10,000 years — more than twice the age of the beat-up and cryptic pyramids and Stonehenge. Right now, these DOE sites are usually protected with “keep out” signs, chain-link fences, and guards. However, there’s no guarantee that any of those measures will be feasible more than a few decades from now.

The problem of how to produce more permanent warnings is coming up quickly for Hanford, where a battleship-sized plutonium extraction factory — a place dubbed “U Plant” — is supposed to be buried under a huge on-site mound by 2012. That and similar sites may prove tempting places to dig centuries from now. “You’ve got to think of reverse psychology,” says Kevin Leary, DOE’s technical leader for the U Plant project. “What if you tweaked someone’s curiosity [to dig instead of avoid digging]?”

At Hanford, a rough rule of thumb for planners is to look ahead 1,000 years. That’s like a Viking trying to conceive of an astronaut, then trying to pass a note to him.

Experts inside and outside of DOE have pondered this communication conundrum. The agency has assembled panels of scientists, historians, artists, and others to tackle from all angles the question of how a 21st century sign should look to a 31st century person. From symbols to colors to materials to size, everything’s up for grabs — and nothing’s been decided. The leading plans for the major sites in New Mexico and Nevada involve enormous berms, monuments, time capsules, and more. Meanwhile, detractors say that will only draw unnecessary attention, and suggest that the best notification is no notification at all.


Look at manuscripts from England that survived from 1000 A.D., Wise says. First of all, very few of those documents made the 1,000-year journey entirely intact. And the written English is indecipherable to most people today. Although we understand some aspects of what life was like then, most of that era is a mystery to us. Given our track record of understanding 1000 A.D.’s communications, Wise speculates that a nuclear-waste burial site would need at least seven different types of warnings in order for at least one to survive 1,000 years and be interpreted correctly.

Now take into consideration that language, science, and technology have evolved much faster in the past 200 years than in the previous 800. And future changes will likely accelerate over the next millennium. After all, videotapes were state of the art in the 1980s, and are antiquated today. Computers become obsolete in less than five years — so what are the chances of a warning sign lasting 1,000 years at a nuclear burial site? The bottom line is, no one knows what to expect.


And what about today’s radiation warning sign? “It’s unfortunate that the radiation symbol looks the way it does, because it doesn’t look very threatening,” Wise says. “Someone might look at it and ask: ‘Why did someone bury all these propellers?'”

Information is the common idea between the two problems – storage in the first; dissemination in the second. Not being able to access stored information is called bit decay (or bit rot) and its causes are many – deterioration of the media itself; equipment capable of reading the information being no longer available; data locked in proprietary file formats, or worse – DRMed; and many many more. Another variation of bit rot is link rot – you link to or refer to articles that are online, and they disappear – because of a change in the way the Content Management System serves up pages (like what happened with the articles and cases I linked to on the Daily Pioneer and websites), or because the website has simply disappeared or gone pay. Further, in cases where people use services like tinyurl to ‘shorten’ their urls, what happens when they go down?

In an interview to Ed Cone of Know It All, Vint Cerf – the “Father of the Internet” – talks about bit rot in the context of software systems-

Bit rot is a stunningly big problem. It’s very real for any company that plans to have any longevity. We’re only seeing the beginning elements of it, and we’re being inundated with new information. Over time, we will need increasing access to that older information. I’m already experiencing problems, like TIFF images that aren’t interpretable, JPEGs that aren’t interpretable as I move from one software base to another, and e-mail that isn’t readable or has attachments that have gotten lost. Things like that are quite frustrating and critically troublesome.

We need to step back and think about how to combat this tendency to lose information. I suspect that there are some tough intellectual property issues built into this problem. What happens if a piece of software is no longer being supported; do we still have access to it? Under what ground rules and what conditions?

Is it required that it be made available as source code? Do you have to provide it online, in the cloud somehow, so that people have access to the functionality? I don’t think there are any rules right now. I suspect that we need to ask what we should do in order to ensure that information that’s important to us is accessible.

The historians, of course, are beside themselves because more and more information about our society is in online form. We start to lose track of what people did, and what actually happened, because we can’t see it anymore, can’t read it. Even though the bits are there, we don’t know how to interpret them.

Ed has another post on the problem, one related to an Archimedes manuscript.

Technology, particularly computing and related digital tech, has revolutionized the way we store, retrieve and disseminate information, and as a consequence we are critically dependent on it; so much so that the very idea of a digital dark age spooks me. And the solution does not lie in techniques similar to, as Sharma’s expert rightly puts it, “preserving a Picasso by repainting it every few years.” As for the nuclear waste problem, “sending a warning to future generations through ‘memory stewardship’ — essentially ingraining the dangers of radiation into folklore that’s passed from generation to generation” is a very bad idea – using mythology to do such things always is.

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