'Through a Glass, Darkly' -- Technical, Policy, and Financial Actions to Avert the Coming Digital Dark Ages

114 Pages Posted: 9 Mar 2016 Last revised: 5 Jan 2017

Date Written: January 4, 2017


This article explains the “digital preservation” challenge, examines various technical, legal, commercial, and governance elements to the problem, and recommends concrete proposals in each area. The research is based on a wide-ranging review of pertinent books, reports, studies, and articles well known to experts in the digital preservation community. Despite the obvious public policy implications, however, the topic has received scant attention in those circles, and to date few publications have attempted single-handedly to address its myriad components from a policy perspective.

Our global cultural heritage, and our own individual and social imprint, are at serious risk of disappearing. More and more of our lives is bound to the ones and zeroes of bits residing on a cloud server, or a laptop. Those bits in turn are mediated by the software and hardware implements we utilize every day. The bitstreams are unintelligible, however, without the suitable data formats, computer applications, operating systems, and hardware environments to interpret them for us. As those systems are modified or replaced over time, we inevitably and irretrievably lose our ability to access the content. The resulting technological obsolescence can leave us trapped in a “digital dark age,” in a culture that has lost its collective memory. As our reliance on data grows even more pervasive in every sector, massive technology and market trends – such as born-digital content, cloud computing, “big data,” and the Internet of Things – will only accelerate the scale and scope of the problem.

The digital preservation challenge is multidimensional, requiring not just developing and implementing technical solutions – such as proposed migration, emulation, and encryption techniques -- but addressing the relevant public policy components. Copyright laws, data protection dictates, and other legal frameworks pose significant hurdles to the usability and accessibility of preserved content. Moreover, the misalignment of financial incentives undermines the prospects of creating viable and economically sustainable solutions.

Despite these significant hurdles, concrete and achievable next steps are possible. In addition to highlighting technical proposals, the paper recommends ways to operate within, or change, existing laws, engage content owners, and harness the interests of ordinary end users. Policymakers also can take steps that will establish the near- and long-term value of preserved content, highlight the costs of inaction, and create new financial incentives.

An underappreciated challenge is the need to organize ongoing activities into a more persistent, broad-based, and ever-evolving process. Another novel element in the paper is the suggested borrowing of key learnings from the Internet governance world. For example, one can combine the existing approach of managing the natural “lifecycle” of information across time, with managing the various layers of technology across space. Moreover, as with the Internet, the digital preservation community can institute a multistakeholder model to help govern its activities, facilitate coordination and cooperation, develop further trust and permanence, and unify stakeholders behind a common mission.

Keywords: Internet, digital preservation, digital archiving, public policy, governance, multistakeholder, copyright law

Suggested Citation

Whitt, Richard S., 'Through a Glass, Darkly' -- Technical, Policy, and Financial Actions to Avert the Coming Digital Dark Ages (January 4, 2017). Santa Clara Computer and High Technology Law Journal, Vol. 33, No. 2, 2016, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2742388

Richard S. Whitt (Contact Author)

GLIA Foundation ( email )

573 Upland Road
Emerald Hills, CA CA 94062
United States
650-450-1705 (Phone)

HOME PAGE: http://www.glia.net

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