Digital dark age

The digital dark age is a possible future situation where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical electronic documents and multimedia, because they have been recorded in an obsolete and obscure file format. The name derives from the term Dark Ages in the sense that there would be a relative lack of written record, as documents are transferred to digital formats and original copies lost.


An early mention of the term was at a conference of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) in 1997.[1] The term was also mentioned in 1998 at the Time and Bits conference,[2][3] which was co-sponsored by the Long Now Foundation and the Getty Conservation Institute.

The problem is not limited to text documents, but applies equally to photos, video, audio and other kinds of electronic documents.[4] One concern leading to the use of the term is that documents are stored on physical media which require special hardware in order to be read and that this hardware will not be available in a few decades from the time the document was created. For example, it is already the case that disk drives capable of reading 5 14 inch floppy disks are not readily available.[5]

The Digital Dark Age also applies to the problems which arise due to obsolete file formats. In such a case, it is the lack of the necessary software which causes problems when retrieving stored documents. This is especially problematic when proprietary formats are used, in which case it might be impossible to write appropriate software to read the file.


A famous real example is with NASA, whose early space records have suffered from a Dark Age issue more than once. For over a decade, magnetic tapes from the 1976 Viking Mars landing were unprocessed. When later analyzed, the data was unreadable as it was in an unknown format and the original programmers had either died or left NASA. The images were eventually extracted following many months of puzzling through the data and examining how the recording machines functioned.[6]

Another example is the BBC Domesday Project in which a survey of the nation was compiled 900 years after the Domesday Book was published. While the information in the Domesday Book is still accessible today, there were great fears that the discs of the Domesday Project would become unreadable as computers capable of reading the format had become rare and drives capable of accessing the discs even rarer. However, the system was emulated in 2002 using a system called DomesEm by the CAMiLEON project. This allows the information on the discs to be accessed on modern computers.[7]

Encrypted data may also prove to be an issue, as the process needed to decode the data can increase complexity.[8] Historically, encrypted data is quite rare, but even the very simple means available throughout history have provided many examples of documents that can only be read with great effort. For example, it took the capacity of a distributed computing project to break the mechanically generated code of a single brief World War II submarine tactical message.[9] Modern encryption is being used in many more documents and media due to publishers wanting the promised protections of DRM.


As more records have become stored in digital form, there have been several measures to standardize electronic file formats so software to read them is widely available and can be re-implemented on new platforms if necessary.

PDF/A is an open standard based on Adobe Systems PDF format.[10] It has been widely adopted by governments and archives around the world, such as the United Kingdom.[11]

The Open Document Format for Office Applications (OpenDocument) has been standardized by OASIS in 2005, and by ISO in 2006. Since then, support for OpenDocument has been implemented in a large number of open source and proprietary software. Therefore, using OpenDocument is one option for archiving editable document from office applications. More broadly, using open source software for working with digital content can be used as a prevention measure. Since the software source code for reading and writing a file format is open, the code can be used as a base for future implementations. In 2007, the chief information officer of the UK's National Archives stated "We welcome open-source software because it makes our lives easier".[12]

In 2007 Microsoft created a partnership with the UK's National Archives to prevent the digital dark age and "unlock millions of unreadable stored computer files".[13][14][15] UK's National Archives now accepts various file formats for long term sustenance, including Office Open XML, PDF and OpenDocument.[16]

The Internet Archive has stated that one of their goals is to prevent the digital dark age.[17]

The 2004 documentary Digital Dark Age directed by Jörg Daniel Hissen and Peter Moers covers this topic.

See also


  1. Kuny, Terry (September 1997). "A Digital Dark Ages? Challenges in the Preservation of Electronic Prevention Information" (PDF). 63RD IFLA (International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) Council and General Conference. Archived (PDF) from the original on 9 May 2008. Retrieved 7 November 2011.
  2. MacLean (1999). MacLean, Margaret & Davis, Ben, eds. Time and Bits, Managing Digital Continuity. Getty. ISBN 978-0-89236-583-8.
  3. Brand, Steven (1 February 1999). "Escaping The Digital Dark Age". Library Journal. 124 (2): 46–69. ISSN 0363-0277. Archived from the original on 23 September 2005.
  4. Ross, Seamus (2000). Changing Trains at Wigan: Digital Preservation and the Future of Scholarship (PDF) (1 ed.). London: British Library (National Preservation Office).
  5. Enticknap, Leo (21 March 2013). "The Problems With Digital Data Storage". The Naked Scientists. Archived from the original on 4 June 2013. Retrieved 25 March 2013.
  6. Blakeslee, Sandra (20 March 1990). "Lost on Earth: Wealth of Data Found in Space". New York Times. Archived from the original on 9 November 2012. Retrieved 7 July 2013.
  7. McKie, Robin; Thorpe, Vanessa (3 March 2002). "Digital Domesday Book lasts 15 years not 1000". The Observer. Archived from the original on 20 January 2013.
  8. Digital Preservation Coalition (2012). "Media and Formats - Compression and Encryption". Digital Preservation Handbook. Archived from the original on 29 July 2012. Retrieved 17 August 2013.
  9. Wearden, Graeme (27 February 2006). "Distributed computing cracks Enigma code". CNET News. Archived from the original on 19 December 2010.
  10. "Adobe Acrobat Engineering:PDF Standards". Adobe. 12 March 2013. Archived from the original on 7 July 2013. Retrieved 7 July 2013.
  11. "Viewing government documents". GOV.UK. Cabinet Office. 6 August 2015. Retrieved 10 September 2015.
  12. Donoghue, Andrew (19 July 2007). "Defending against the digital dark age". ZDNet. Archived from the original on 23 October 2012.
  13. Kennedy, Maev (4 July 2007). "National Archive project to avert digital dark age". News:Technology. The Guardian. Archived from the original on 17 July 2010. Retrieved 7 October 2009.
  14. Ferguson, Tim (5 July 2007). "Microsoft Helps Archives Save the Past". Technology. Business Week. Archived from the original on 10 July 2007. Retrieved 7 October 2009.
  15. Colvile, Robert (5 July 2007). "How to stave off a digital 'dark age'". Telegraph. Archived from the original on 24 April 2012. Retrieved 7 October 2009.
  16. "File formats for transfer - The National Archives".
  17. "About the Internet Archive". Archived from the original on 5 October 2013. Retrieved 5 October 2013.

Further reading

External video
Digital Dark Age (Computer History Museum, 2011)
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