TS: Dark Ages 2.0

Total Info Loss

Total Info Loss

One of the more, shall we say, fascinating aspects of Microsoft’s business plan is how they coerce you into buying their products. It isn’t enough that they control a near-monopoly of commercial operating systems, nor that they’ve wrested control of a significant part of the lucrative gaming industry – probably the most important reason to treat their products with overt disdain is the threat they pose to future record-keeping.

It’s no exaggeration. The Microsoft Office line of products are designed explicitly to go obsolete in a few years. Small tweaks to file formats and standards accumulate over time and with every new version release until files made on a version only ten years old cannot be displayed at all on the newest rendition of Word or Excel. Any archives that, for whatever reason, don’t get updated throughout that time becomes worse than useless – without an emulator or old, functioning computer to slowly lead it through the update process, that information might as well be so much digital junk.

Of course, avoiding this is, theoretically, easy enough. Office’s most ardent competitor, the free OpenOffice suite, suffers not from this problem – assuming that OpenOffice remains competitive for the long-run. And you can always save your files as .rtf or .txt. But how many of us bother to? What companies out there demand that, whenever an employee makes a business-relevant text file, that they save it in a way that, fifty years down the line, the company can call it up again for whatever purpose is on-hand? Or schools? Or even our government?

The Dark Ages that plagued the aftermath of the fall of Rome wasn’t due to a sudden loss of the ability to read or write amongst the European population – it was simply a period where the struggle to survive superseded any attempts at record-keeping. While human innovation did continue during the period, what progress did exist was drastically slowed down, specifically because of the near-total collapse of record-keeping outside of the period’s religious organizations. The loss of the techniques and technologies that made Rome profit in the first place put a severe dent in the cultural fabric of the period.

Human civilization is built upon a foundation of pure information. What we know today, and everything we develop thereafter, are built upon the relics and lessons of the past. To lose that foundation would therefore be a crippling loss to human endeavor.

So what are we facing, given Microsoft’s overwhelming digital dominance? Or, heck, given our propensity to store information on unstable hardware? CDs and DVDs lose information over time – in fact, even our paper, impregnated with a slow-acting acid, eventually falls apart. Those browned and yellowed letters from World War II that your grandmother has locked up somewhere will be so much ash given another handful of decades.

Our heavier and heaver emphasis on digital technology, especially without a means of long-term storage, will have drastic consequences if not handled with proper care and attention. For the sake of our descendants, and especially ourselves if the much-promised biomedical longevity breakthrough happens in our lifetime, it is in our best interest to prevent a recurrence of the Dark Ages. Especially when so much of how our technology and telecommunications softwares depend on old systems and encryptions that we’re, even now, losing the documentation too.

A dark wave of no-history is slowly encroaching upon us. Panicking now means you’ll still remember what you were panicking about tomorrow.

(this entry, as well as all previous and future, was written on OpenOffice 3.0. Which reminds me – time to update.)

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~ by Gonzo Mehum on February 12, 2009.

8 Responses to “TS: Dark Ages 2.0”

  1. Of course, academia is relatively free of this, especially in the sciences, mainly because Microsoft’s equation editor is horrible and so no-one adopted their wordprocessing software in the first place. It’s all LaTeX and PDFs from where I’m standing.
    What’s particularly sad, of course, is that the ISO keeled over under Microsoft’s pressure and actually allowed their “open” document “standard” to be approved. That was a terrible missed opportunity for fixing this entire debacle…

  2. And what should come across my desk, but the position of the digital archivist, someone dedicated to the prospect of making sure that old digital data survives into the next year.

    Librarians and archivists have been looking at digital documentation, including matters of provenance and survival for some time. Open standards that can be easily integrated into new software suites are best. For now, though, until Microsoft heaves to and dies, the best kludge we have is making other programs be able to read their formats. Then there will be mass conversion to something better. Eventually. *shiftyeyes*

    As for media degradation, ask the scientists at NASA about that, as they frantically try to get all their tape data onto something more permanent before it dust-crumbles.

  3. Nanoscale binary code indentations upon titanium wafers stored in vacuum-sealed, shock-resistant containers? Would probably last a few centuries~

  4. The sad thing about the digital archivists is that at least some of them seem to have been getting funding from Microsoft, which prevents them from making the strong arguments they should be – I recall a story in on the BBC Website, a couple of years back, where some archivists were acting as if there was no other document format than Word…
    Tape data, actually, is remarkably stable. It lasts, properly stored, for decades, and you just need to stage it onto new tapes at twenty or thirty-year intervals to make sure it stays okay. Compared to this, harddisks and CDs are fairly useless. There’s a reason we use tapes for archival storage still, you know.

    (And nanoscale indentations are on the scale vulnerable to thermal diffusion damage and nanoscale surface relaxation – I hope you’re spending the money to keep those wafers under liquid helium!)

  5. Okay, maybe it’s that they’ve been neglecting their maintenance, instead of the medium itself having disadvantages.

    Regarding archivists, while Microsoft pushes hard that the world only uses their products and formats, it’s not true. Last I checked, though, PDF was not an open document standard, so that’s not really a refuge to take from the Microsoft storm. *sigh*.

  6. Actually, PDF is an open standard as of July 1st last year, and mostly-complete GPL’d implementations of at least version 1.5 have been available for ages.
    It’s also a much nicer format in general, and is even extensible and allows embedding script snippets.

  7. Then my information is faulty, caps. Thanks, and bring on the mass conversion call or something, yes?

  8. What about keeping a set of books? Someplace dry and not-on-fire?

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