The Present Analog Dark Age

September 4, 2012

The great thing about predicting doom and gloom is that the end times are always imminent, but never quite here. The natural state of a threat is to loom. If it actually ever happens — hey, you’re prescient! If not, well, there’s still the possibility…

The death of film has been a productive area for prognosticators on both sides of the fence, those lamenting its passing as a Caligulan descent into a cultural morass and those cheering its decease as an evolutionary improvement on par with a whole planetary society of apes, damned and/or dirty though they may be.

Kodak’s recent foray into a market previously deemed too small to be feasible notwithstanding, the death of film has — denying both sides of another fence on the property — been neither greatly exaggerated nor correctly reported. Though we are all legally compelled to consider corporations as people, the death of a non-human entity is not a singular temporal or irreversible event.

Another profitable area where people are encroaching on Nostradamus’ turf is the gnashing of teeth and tolling of bells declaring the coming digital dark age, the period when all digital content will be lost and, because all analog content will have been trashed after it is digitized and posted on the Facebook, all human knowledge will disappear or be locked up in the secular, Internets version of monasteries (i.e., third-party owned server farms) — well, there or, once again, saved in the mouths of the Irish, gar bless ’em — as occurred in the original Dark Ages.

Later arguments aside, are we really in such an intellectual…dark age where we can’t even imagine new historical structures/events without them simply mirroring or borrowing from past epochs we read a paragraph about in Western Civ?

I will here bite my tongue (whilst still I bite my thumb) about an essential misrepresentation of the richness of the medieval period that the pejorative of the Dark Ages (and its Euro-centrism) has bequeathed upon the era, a timespan which itself, like the death of film, has no hard temporal definition.

Rather, I would say, or will say presently, we should set the idea of the coming digital dark ages aside for a moment. Set aside the fear of the future and understand that we are already in the midst of an analog media dark age right… … … now. Formats are obsolete. Archives and individuals do not know what content they have and in many cases do not have the means to access it. Much of our audiovisual heritage is at risk of being lost, but a large portion of that is already effectively lost because it is unfindable and/or inaccessible. Though an item is still physically sitting there on a shelf or in a box and has not burnt up in an Alexandrian fire, that does not mean the content is doing or is able to do its cultural/institutional work.

And really, this is the same state of digital media today as well. Countless files are essentially lost due to lack of findability and usability. The risk of loss is not inherent in the digital/analog divide but is a result of the exponential growth of content creation, material or structural factors of created objects, and the lack of broad resource support for the institutions tasked with preserving our cultural heritage. These factors, and the fear-mongering over the digital dark ages or the loss of even one single object, contribute to an atmosphere of inaction and indecision, one where the horror of future failure obscures the reality of the present and the pathways to managing that reality — pathways we as professionals have the skills to imagine, define, and follow.

—¬†Joshua Ranger