Is our digital lifestyle leading to a dark age for cultural heritage?

406286812_121ba20709_zIf you want to see the future of heritage, look no further than your computer screen.

I’ll explain what I mean. Right now, when we think about material heritage culture, most folks think about things like old photographs, written documents, buildings and sculpture. These objects that have been handed down since antiquity are perishable but, as physical products of our world, can be preserved with vigilance and a little luck.

Now think about it: what will your descendants have to remember you by? Your Facebook page? The digital photos on your computer?

This is an information golden age for our civilization, but it could easily be the dark ages historically if we’re not careful. It’s no surprise that things carved on rocks have survived the centuries, but I’ve lost enough data to tell you nothing stored on a hard drive–or even an online network–is necessarily forever. Factor into that the problems inherent in our “patch” culture and keeping files current on our computers, and you see the potential issues.

The term for these objects is “born digital.” In other words, they were created digitally and never printed on paper or existed as a physical object. There have been so many versions of software platforms and file formats in this still fairly young stage of personal computing, that there’s no way to save all of it. I’m not even necessarily saying we should. But it is worth us thinking about what we create on a daily basis and deciding how we could potentially save it to share our legacy after we’re gone.

Create a digital inventory today

Over the next few weeks, I’ll explore how you can preserve different types of digital files that you might want to pass down. But that starts with actually knowing what you have and creating a system for updating it. To start getting a handle on your data, you need to create an inventory of what you have. That will take a little time, but all you need are six sheets of letter-sized paper and a pen.

  • Label each sheet of paper with one of the following titles: Digital Photographs, Digital Audio, Digital Video, Electronic Mail, Personal Digital Records, and Websites.
  • Schedule some time to assemble all the digital storage you own–current and old computers, external hard drives, CDs, DVDs, and floppy disks.
  • Go through the contents of each one and note the disk name and general contents (thematically, not the name of each file) on the appropriate paper.
This decidedly non-digital approach will be important for really thinking about your files and creating a strategy for archiving and updating your data later, so try to do it in one sitting to make sure you catch everything. Next time, we’ll focus on the type of media that gives the most people trouble: digital photographs.I’ve recorded a couple of episodes of NCPTT’s Preservation Technology podcast with experts from the Library of Congress and the SAVE initiative regarding different aspects of digital preservation. Check them out if you can. In the meantime, I’d love to hear about your approach for preserving today’s memories for the future.
Graphic image by De’Nick’nise on Flickr

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3 thoughts on “Is our digital lifestyle leading to a dark age for cultural heritage?”

  1. You might be interested to know that the National Archives of Australia has developed software to aide in archiving of digital content and open-sourced it for everyone to use and develop. The package itself is called DPSP – "Digital Preservation Software Platform" – and can be found here:

    A key part of this is called Xena – a tool for detecting what type of file is being presented and automatically extracting content and meta-data into open file formats which stand a better chance of being readable in the long term than proprietary ones. It is available from here:

    If you want an example of why this is really important then it's hard to beat the UK BBC Domesday Project from 1986 in terms of irony. They were attempting to collect data from schoolchildren to create a digital equivalent of the 1086 Domesday Book which would use the latest in technology – BBC Micro computers and Laserdisk storage devices.

    Within only a short time the content was inaccessible to current systems and so in the 2000's attempts were made to resurrect the system so that it could be archived properly. However, irony struck again and it appears the UK National Archives lost not only the original material but also the reconstructed material according to this article in the RISKS digest:

    Who knows if that content will ever be resurrected now.. 🙁

  2. Chris, thanks for the terrific links. The DPSP/Xena project is new to me, and I'm very much interested in learning more (perhaps a podcast interview with one of the developers?).

    As I noted above, I recorded a podcast on a similar topic last year with Bernard Frischer. His SAVE initiative focuses on archiving 3D scans and virtual environments related to cultural heritage. In theory, the foundation will copy from the archive and update the contents when the technology iterates. Transcript and related links here:

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