The Chief Executive of the UK National Archives has warned that we face a “ticking time bomb” regarding potentially unreadable digital formats. Microsoft’s UK Gordon Frazier agrees, warning of a looming “digital dark age”. They have a point. It’s hard to read old file formats. There are also lots of dodgy back-up tapes out there just waiting to fail.
But I’m not so sure that’s the real problem with old data. Personally, I’ve never seen so much historical material on the Internet. Most storage today is virtual, backed up and stored in multiple systems and locations rather than in a single archive. Technology for compressing, storing and searching for data is improving substantially. I can’t see historians of tomorrow having much of a problem finding information about the last few decades. It will just require a different approach.
The real problem is getting rid of the stuff. Every action we take over digital networks creates trails of data that are hard, illegal or impossible to eradicate. You can protect some (but not all) of it using cryptography but eventually the algorithms used will reach their sell-by date. Young people today might be less concerned about publishing personal data about themselves on the Internet, but a casual remark might come back to haunt them, especially when they’re applying for a job and their prospective employer decides to run some background checks. Because – like it or not – it’s becoming harder to be discreet in the electronic goldfish bowl we’re building for the future.