Washington, October 28 : An expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says that rapid digitising may ultimately lead to a "digital dark age", where digital photographs will become unreadable to future computers.
Jerome P. McDonough, an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the university, says that the issue of a looming digital dark age originates from the mass of data spawned by the ever-growing information economy - including electronic records, tax files, e-mail, music and photos.
He is afraid that data produced with ever-shifting platforms and file formats may eventually fall into a black hole of inaccessibility.
"If we can't keep today's information alive for future generations, we will lose a lot of our culture," he said.
"Even over the course of 10 years, you can have a rapid enough evolution in the ways people store digital information and the programs they use to access it that file formats can fall out of date," he added.
McDonough highlighted the fact that a "huge amount" of content was being developed in digital formats only.
"E-mail is a classic example of that. It runs both the modern business world and government. If that information is lost, you've lost the archive of what has actually happened in the modern world. We've seen a couple of examples of this so far," he said.
He also cited the missing White House e-mail archive from the run-up to the Iraq War, a violation of the Presidential Records Act.
"With the current state of the technology, data is vulnerable to both accidental and deliberate erasure. What we would like to see is an environment where we can make sure that data does not die due to accidents, malicious intent or even benign neglect," he said.
He said that Barack Obama's political advertising inside the latest editions of the popular videogames "Burnout Paradise" and "NBA Live" ought to be preserved for future generations, but all that could possibly be lost because of the proprietary nature of videogames and videogame platforms.
"It's not a matter of just preserving the game itself. There are whole parts of popular and political culture that we won't be able to preserve if we can't preserve what's going on inside the gaming world," he said.
According to him, there would also be an economic effect to the loss of data from a digital dark age.
"We would essentially be burning money because we would lose the huge economic investment libraries and archives have made digitising materials to make them accessible. Governments are likewise investing huge sums to make documents available to the public in electronic form," he said.
McDonough said that a digital dark age could be avoided if experts figure out the best way to keep valuable data alive and accessible by using a multi-prong approach of migrating data to new formats, devising methods of getting old software to work on existing platforms, using open-source file formats and software, and creating data that's "media-independent."
"Reliance on open standards is certainly a huge part, but it's not the only part. If we want information to survive, we really need to avoid formats that depend on a particular media type. Commercial DVDs that employ protection schemes make it impossible for libraries to legally transfer the content to new media. When the old media dies, the information dies with it," he said.