A 'digital dark age' could help us let go of the past

Who hasn’t started a spring clean and
become sidetracked, having discovered an
old photo album? Which of us doesn’t love
perusing early Facebook pics?
The man with the best job title in the
world, chief internet evangelist and vice
president at Google, Vint Cerf, has warned
of a possible “digital dark age” as
technology becomes outmoded.
Cerf, who basically invented the means for
the internet, has warned that as tech
evolves, it might become more difficult to
access older digital methods of storage.
Think about that un-openable document
with an obscure file extension, a remnant
of an old PC running Windows 95. Or, if
you ever wanted to go back and reread
your undergrad dissertation? Good luck
finding a computer with a floppy disk
drive.
This issue of digital obsolescence isn’t a
new concern. Cornell University has even
started to keep a list of the tech that is
already six feet under. Cerf’s main point is
that future historians will have fewer
resources as redundant tech become
inaccessible.
It’s true that, should a mass of digital
material be lost to an unplugged ether, our
collective memory of the early 21st century
– and the understanding for those who
come after us – could be obscured.
If, in a future age of microchip-implanted
computers under the skin, Android and
Apple phones became landfill, and tweets
and Instagram pics unrecoverable, then
how would 3015’s Mary Beard ever know
about selfies and throwback Thursday?
But for individuals, might this be a good
thing? Perhaps not being able to have at
our fingertips a bundle of digital
memories is a psychological positive; a
boon for mental health.
I come from a family of hoarders. On my
iPhone, I currently have 5,426 photos in my
camera roll. I own two portable 1 terabyte
hard drives, stacked with multimedia files
and documents.
Further back, in an offline tumbling
cupboard of mementoes, I have shoe boxes
full of birthday cards, love letters, plane
tickets, postcards, club flyers and tacky
gifts from various countries.I still have report cards from school.
Worse, I still have GCSE textbooks and past
papers – just in case I need to look something
up. Like the scientific formula for water,
perhaps?
I once almost wept when I realised a poster
had faded and yellowed in the sunlight.
I’ve also accidentally deleted a thread of
text messages with a contact, and rued the
loss of messages I probably would never
have looked at again.
But how much of this is healthy? Is
hanging on to emotional artefacts
conducive to good mental health? Why do
we keep this stuff? Doesn’t it just pull us
into the past?
Why go back into a vortex of pain reading
over an ex’s words, or sob over a school
yearbook and all those dashed hopes?
There have been psychological studies that
show habitual hoarders have a higher
level of activity in the ventromedial
prefrontal cortex when deliberating over
whether to chuck that old C86 out.
What does this mean? That the person’s
actual sense of self is somehow correlated
to a material item.
The irony of digital obsolescence, of
course, is that digital technology was
supposed to make personal effects and
memories less ephemeral and more secure.
Vinyl gets scratched; cassette tape
unspools; tea gets spilt on paper. With
social media and cloud storage, we are
only too aware that this stuff isn’t going
anywhere. (And especially if it’s in the
hands of a government intelligence
agency.)
But if Cerf is right, that now might not be
the case. Perhaps he’s correct about the
academic loss for future anthropologists, or
the dulling of the collective memory of
things like MS-DOS.
But for us in the here and now it’s
probably best to just let it all go.