What should we call our future with regard to saving and using digital information?
I think one common term misses the mark in conveying the true threat to data and in expressing the basic imperative for keeping it.
“Digital dark ages” is a popular term that plays on fear, and by the way, suggests that the forces of history are working against data persistence. The phase makes for provocative paper and article titles, true, but it hasn’t leveraged adequate support. Not to mention the fact that David Rosenthal makes a compelling argument that “digital dark ages turns out to be a poor analogy for the situation we face today.”
Rosenthal, among others, points to what is in fact a completely different reality: the huge and galloping vastness of digital information. And data will continue to grow at an incredible rate–The Economist noted last year that “information has gone from scarce to superabundant.” Far from data loss through obsolescence, the big problem is actually too much data. The Economist notes that “the proliferation of data is making them increasingly inaccessible.”
Science has just issued a Special Online Collection: Dealing with Data (registration required). The introduction notes that “we have recently passed the point where more data is being collected than we can physically store,” and “even where accessible, much data in many fields is too poorly organized to enable it to be efficiently used.” There are also references to limited funding for data curation to enable broader use or even just keeping the bits safe.
Seth Godin famously noted that people aren’t more worked up over global warming for two basic reasons. One is the name: “global” is good and “warming” is good so how can “global warming” be bad?
The second reason is that climate change activists “have been unable tell their story with vivid images about immediate actions, it’s just human nature to avoid the issue.” People need to have an immediate sense of any problem to focus on fixing it.
Digital preservation faces something similar. “Digital dark ages” sounds scary at first, but the term flies in the face of the reality we confront. Given how stressed people say they are about information overload, the prospect of data disappearing may actually sound pretty good.
We need a better way to communicate the need for digital preservation and access. In another context, Joseph Hellerstein has talked about “the industrial revolution of data,” which maybe has some possibilities. “Data-driven” is another current term tossed around in science and technology.
Any thoughts on this?
Picture added, reformatted and tweaked for style on 2/14/2011, 4:45 pm EST