The digital dark age is a lack of historical information in the digital age as a direct result of outdated file formats, software, or hardware that becomes corrupt, scarce, or inaccessible as technologies evolve and data decays. Future generations may find it difficult or impossible to retrieve 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 could be a relative lack of records in the digital age, as documents are transferred to digital formats and original copies are lost. An early mention of the term was at a conference of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) in 1997. The term was also mentioned in 1998 at the Time and Bits conference, 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. 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 5¼-inch floppy disks are not readily available.
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 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.
Magnetic tape data storage is a method of storing data on magnetic tape. It is used as a backup method of storage for digital storage and is one way of mitigating a possible digital dark age. For example, in 2011 hundreds of thousands of Google accounts were reset and the data in those accounts went missing. Google was able to restore the data to the email accounts from the data stored on magnetic tape. Magnetic data storage is also used by financial institutions, hospitals, movie studios, and manufacturing companies to backup content. Magnetic tape can hold hundreds of terabytes of data.
Even Vinton Cerf, Vice President of Google, showed his concerns about data preservation in the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: "As the way that we store information about ourselves develops, memories stored in files that use older technology are becoming harder to access. That could mean that historians of the future are unable to learn about our lives". His suggested solution consists of preserving a sample of every piece of software and hardware that has ever existed so that it never becomes obsolete. He proposed taking an X-ray snapshot of the content, the application and the operating system along with a description of the machine. This information should be then stored, instead of in a museum, in servers in the cloud. 
A famous example is 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.
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 original Domesday Book is still readable today, there were great fears that the discs of the Domesday Project would become unreadable as software and disk drives capable of reading the format became rarer and rarer. However, in 2002 the CAMiLEON project migrated the information to a system called DomesEm, allowing it to be accessed on modern computers.
Encryption may exacerbate the problem of preserving data, since decoding adds complexity even when the relevant software is available. 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. Modern encryption is being used in many more documents and media due to publishers wanting the promised protections of DRM.
As more records are 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.
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 documents from office applications. More broadly, the use of open source software is a prevention measure. Since the 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".
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". UK's National Archives now accepts various file formats for long term sustenance, including Office Open XML, PDF and OpenDocument.
|Digital Dark Age (Computer History Museum, 2011)|