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"We're still in the first minutes of the first day of the Internet revolution." – Scott Cook

The Digital Dark Ages

“Technology inevitably brings great benefits and awesome risks. This essential ambivalence raises the challenging question about human governance of technological development. Can a balance be struck between progress and plague? What choices should be made to shape technology towards humanitarian aspirations?”
                                                                                                                        – C.J. Hamelink, the author of The Ethics in Cyberspace, p.1

It is estimated that eighty percent of all the information in the world today is born digital. A born digital object is created entirely in an electronic format; it does not begin as a physical document or object. The amount of literature produced on preserving born digital content is quite impressive even though born digital awareness has only come to light in the last 15 years. It is strange to think about how future generations will deal with files that were created on what will one day be obsolete software and hardware.

For example, when I was in college in the1990s, I wrote papers for my English class on an old Mac Plus using ClarisWorks and saved my files on floppy disks. I am certain that I still have these disks somewhere in my garage, but it would take a team of computer scientists and geniuses to access the content on those disks with today’s technology. Of course, my choppy, college English papers are not the type of content I am referring to regarding born digital preservation. I am referring to digital data that may be of great importance to our cultural heritage one day.

What is truly mind-boggling is that right now, there are libraries and institutions who are trying to preserve ALL of the billions of web pages on the internet. This brings up so many obvious, foreseeable problems such as privacy, open access issues, copyright, and authenticity.  These issues can become so complex and unpredictable that most scholars tread lightly in these areas inside digital preservation literature. The fear of many historians and librarians is that if we don’t save all of the data online now, then we may lose it forever – and if we lose generations of data, then we will be nothing but a black hole in history, hence the term: the digital dark ages.

The International Internet Preservation Consortium (IIPC) was created in 2003 by eleven national libraries to preserve born digital content. It was an unprecedented project and today it includes 39 major libraries. The high cost and sheer size of content is a big problem for these libraries – the Economist reports that “The British Library estimates that it costs half as much to store a digital document as it does a physical one. But there are a lot more digital ones.” In 2010, the archive held around 30 trillion copies (several petabytes). The enormous challenges of archiving the web are mind-boggling. Lor and Britz (2012) raise these questions regarding born digital content and cultural heritage:

  • Is it right to download websites from a poor country without first obtaining the permission of the website owners?
  • Would it be better to ask for permission first, or at least notify the appropriate parties first, even at the risk of losing the material?
  • Does it make a difference if this is done for the sake of science and scholarship?
  • Who should decide who may have access to the material?
  • Can we argue that by downloading the websites we are actually helping other countries preserve a part of their national heritage? Lor and Britz’s (2012)

Lor and Britz (2012) point out some complicated scenarios: If a rich country downloads records from a poor country, can the rich country turn around and sell this content?  Is it in their legal rights to charge access and royalty fees for content they obtained without any copyright agreement?  The authors suggest using a type of moral decision-making strategy that is based in principles rather than outcomes, e.g., rules that can guide our actions “aiming to ensure that it will lead to a common good for society. It . . . asserts universal principles . . . but acknowledges the fact that the application is codetermined by the situation” (Lor & Britz, 2012, p. 2156).

In the article “Remember this – but not that,” Mroz (2011) raises several issues that are important about born digital content. An individual’s entire life can be documented online and as of yet, there are no tools that allow individuals to select what should be forgotten about in their digital history. Some experts on Internet governance believe that this is a basic right for all people and that privacy and legal problems are still unresolved around these issues (Mroz, 2011). Academics who feel that archiving the web serves the greater good for us all may fail to assess the risks involved in downloading millions of websites for future generations. Librarians and historians feel that Internet content must be preserved so that future scholars can study the way organizations and societies evolve.


Lor, P. J. , & Britz, J. J. (2012). An ethical perspective on political-economic issues in the long-term preservation of digital heritage. Journal Of The American Society For Information Science & Technology, 63(11), 2153-2164.

Mroz, A. (2011). Remember this – but not that. Times Higher Education, 2014, 5.




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