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  • Zoe Milton

A Digital Dark Age: The Problem with Conserving Granny’s Facebook Status

Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq

In 1977, The Voyager probes were launched into space, each one containing

a Golden Record which harboured bountiful information about life on Earth. Vital

data about societies far away; sounds, pictures, and records about humanity. But

what if you were an untrendy extra-terrestrial without a record player? All of this

material would be completely lost to you. This is what we would experience in a

‘Digital Dark Age’, where data stored in obsolete technology, such as phonograph

records, cassette tapes, DVDS, will become inaccessible to us. Let’s say, for

example, you tried to put a Floppy Disk into the USB slot of your computer. Not only

would it be a physical challenge but trying to convert the data on the disk to a format

your computer could understand would be difficult, expensive, and, if it worked,

would most likely damage the quality of your files. Ergo, your data would eventually

become just as useless and unreachable as NASA’s playlist. On an extreme scale,

this would mean an entire chunk of anthropological data missing due to our

obsession with digitalisation. But, really, why should you care about the preservation

of historical data?

Whilst doing the research for this article, I had no prerogative to move; all the

information I could possibly require was available online. While this presents an

advantage for the lazy journalist, and has obvious benefits for the purposes of

accessibility, the problem with archiving the entirety of human history in neat digital

compartments becomes obvious when these formats are rendered out-dated so

quickly. While historical artefacts can be physically preserved and maintained, digital

data also requires constant maintenance. If we want future generations to have

access to all we have stored digitally (your TikTok drafts, your Snapchat memories

etc…), data will have to be constantly uploaded and transferred to new formats in

order to ensure that not only our information stays intact but that contemporary

technology can interpret it to allow us access to our pasts.

This is not only an expensive feat, which may not be feasible for small

institutions but one which has deeply concerning environmental impacts. ‘Cloud

Computing’ has emerged as one solution to storing and backing-up our data, and

has quickly become a multi-billion dollar industry, valued at USD 495.3 Billion in

2022. While its name evokes an image of our information aimlessly floating around in

the sky, the reality of it all is not so inconsequential. Businesses implementing these

solutions produce mass amounts of greenhouse gas emissions, due to the large

amount of electricity required to keep data in ‘The Cloud.’ These emissions will only

increase until this mode of data storage no longer functions and we will have to

spend time and energy converting our data to the next best technology. One can see

how this entraps us in a vicious ecological cycle; not only do our attempts to avoid

the loss of data cause climate devastation but the ‘Dark Age’ itself will come about

as a result of the production of new technology occurring at an unprecedented speed

in an age of incessant consumerism. If we want history at our fingertips, we must find

a way to do it without impacting our future.

Considering then the cost and impacts of data storage, the question of what is

retained arises. Like in the process of physical archiving, how we curate the data we

store is understandably important. But hindsight is 20/20: how can we know what

we’ll want to look at fifty years from now? This is why the decision of what is

Colonialism,’ whereby tech giants exploit and control personal data in the pursuit of

profit. These corporations are generally based in the Global North, meaning that the

data they hold onto may benefit those in the West, with our digital history

propagating a Eurocentric perspective. Therefore, if we continue to conceive the idea

of digital preservation in the same way, we will only increase the extent to which the

tech industry is an oligopoly, losing data that Big Tech deems unimportant and,

ultimately, our access to stories outside of the non-Western canon.

While having our information stored online appears a permanent solution to

the age-old concern of how to pass our stories to the next generation, it is clearly not

as simple as it appears. Our obsession with digitalisation has catastrophic ecologic

effects, requires great economic efforts and puts personal data at risk. So, I return to

the question I posed in the first paragraph. You shouldn’t care. That is to say, until

we revolutionise the way we think about technology by finding more long-lasting and

environmentally friendly ways to store our data, there is no point in worrying about

what we will lose. What is the point in conserving our history, if we have no one to

keep it for?

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