Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Digital Dark Age - Some Misconceptions

I've read numerous blogs and tweets from people talking about Curt Witcher's discussion in the past about a "Digital Dark Age".  These posts and tweets almost invariably dismiss Mr. Witcher as some sort of anti-technology Luddite who would see us eschew technology for more traditional means of recording our family histories.  I've read of eye-rolling at mention of this man and that topic.  And I've now read heaps of praise (deserved!) for his presentation at Rootstech 2011.  I attended his presentation virtually, and even across the internet I could tell the passion that Mr. Witcher has for genealogy and family history, and preservation of information!

I'm here to say that those of you dismissing Mr. Witcher have totally misunderstood what he was saying about a "Digital Dark Age"!  He wasn't saying we should not use technology.  Far from it!  Rather, he was warning us of the potential problems of our technology, and to be alert against them.  Bear with me as I explain.

Paper has lasted for hundreds of years, other media including stone and clay tablets for millenia.  They're known, trustworthy methods of storing data.  We shouldn't abandon them just because we have shiny new technology.  I personally hold original documents over a century old.  Most of you do as well.  As an IT professional, I also hold digital data in a variety of media.  Floppy diskettes that are as much as 30 years old, readable only on machines decades obsolete, if they're still readable at all.  Other floppy diskettes up to 20 years old, possibly readable if I can find a currently running computer that still has a working floppy drive, which is getting rarer by the month.  I can tell you that floppies were far from reliable storage even when they were new and still in active use!  The degradation of time has surely rendered many of my old disks unreadable through decay of the magnetic information written on them.

Hard drives are more robust, yes, having better protected magnetic surfaces and stronger magnetic fields, somewhat shielded from outside influence.  But they have mechanical parts, and anything with moving parts will eventually fail.  There are two sorts of computer users - those who have experienced a hard drive crash, and those who WILL experience one.  As for USB memory sticks and the new solid state drive replacements, they have no moving parts, true, but they have not been in existence long enough for anyone to be sure of their longevity.  CD and DVD-ROM media have been revealed to be much less long-lived than manufacturers originally told us they would be when they were introduced.  Dye degrades, aluminum substrates oxidize, discs scratch extremely easily. 

All of these things mean that digital media are fragile when compared to known paper and other old technology media.  We must ensure we guard against the failure of digital media, or our data will be lost!  That doesn't mean we shouldn't use digital media, far from it.  What it means is that we must often check our storage to be sure it is still readable, and we must maintain multiple copies (preferably in multiple physical locations!) so that if any one part fails, we can recover from other copies.

If Mr. Witcher came across as passionate about genealogy at Rootstech, I am certain he is as passionate about wanting to be sure we don't lose what we've learned through failure of our storage methods.  Quite the opposite of  being a Luddite, as we saw at Rootstech, Mr. Witcher is very much in favor of using the technology to make it easier to find and share our data with others.  I hope you will consider this next time someone mentions Mr. Witcher and his Digital Dark Age, and perhaps correct this misconception.