Digital Dark Age Ahead?
Part 1: Step Away from the
Part 2: iPad,
Therefore I Am
Part 3: Life between the Cracks
4: The Tyranny of
Scholars from the Great Library of Alexandria in Egypt once
roamed the world to locate, copy, and catalogue the literary masterpieces of
antiquity — works of poetry, science, history, and religion — so that the
accumulated wisdom of the ancients would pass safely to future
It was not to be. The Great Library, founded in the
3rd century B.C. by the Greek-speaking Ptolemaic dynasty, did not
survive the convulsions of history, nor did the bulk of its treasures. No one
is really sure how or why — Julius Caesar’s army, accidental fire, and the
hordes of Muhammad have all been variously proposed.
We may never know
how exactly the library vanished, but we can be certain of the consequences — a
shocking dearth of the great intellectual and artistic works of deep antiquity
has come down to us. Those works that have survived are known largely because
farsighted monks in the Dark Ages labored in the far corners of the West to
hand-copy those authors they knew and loved (see Thomas Cahill’s book How
the Irish Saved Civilization for a thrilling account of this process).
Still, their efforts, while valiant, were insufficient to save the vast
majority of classical works from disappearing forever.
You may think that
digital technology will preclude such a catastrophic loss of culture ever
happening again. In fact, our dependence on digitally stored information has
all but guaranteed a new informational Dark Age.
Digital information is
merely a collection of ones and zeros that requires software to be translated
for us. As computer scientist Jeff Rothenberg has noted, “[m]ost people haven’t
recognized that digital stuff is encoded in some format that requires software
to render it in a form that humans can perceive. … Software that knows how to
render those bits becomes obsolete. And it runs on computers that become
Indeed, the vast abundance of digital information showcases
its terrifyingly evanescent nature. Computer software, essentially a
digital-to-human translation system, is updated on the average every year and a
half, and hardware more often than that. New systems read only some of what was
encoded in older systems, and then often only in the most recent iterations.
Very quickly, the gulf between what is stored and what can be accessed becomes
unbridgeable. Try slipping a floppy disk into your iPad to work on that novel
you started in college.
The danger is that as more and more of our lives
is committed to digital, only some portions of that data will be transferred to
new media, and the losses will compound with each successive generation.
Eventually you are left with a gaping hole in history, a vast ocean of
unrecoverable information rotting away in obsolete machines.
if, instead of saving your college novel on a floppy disk, you had typed it out
on paper and stuck it in a drawer, you could easily pull it out again and start
working on it twenty years later — no translation software required. It just
goes to show that the printed page, bound or rolled in traditional ways, is an
astonishingly durable medium. Under the right conditions, it can last centuries
— or longer.
The correspondence of John and Abigail Adams, for example,
is now over two hundred years old. It has become a testament to one of the
world’s great and enduring loves. The letters themselves were saved and passed
on, and they are now housed in various private and scholarly collections. The
paper and ink carried their love, then kept it safe, for them to read and
treasure — and now for us to read and treasure.
Now people write
e-mails, entirely disposable ephemera conveying utterly disposable thoughts.
Perhaps, unlike when the intellectual achievements of the Great Library of
Alexandria went up in smoke, when the Digital Dark Age arrives, we will not have
lost much that was worth keeping anyway.