The digital dark age is a possible future situation where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical digital documents and multimedia, because they have been stored in an obsolete and obscure digital format.
The name derives from the term ‘Dark Ages’ in the sense that there would be a relative lack of written record. An early mention of the term was at a conference of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) in 1997. The term was also mentioned in 1998 at the ‘Time and Bits’ conference, which was co-sponsored by the Long Now Foundation and the Getty Conservation Institute.
The problem is not limited to text documents, but applies equally to photos, video, audio, and other kinds of electronic documents. The concern leading to the use of the term is that documents are stored on physical media which require special hardware in order to be read and that this hardware will not be available in a few decades from the time the document was created. For example, it is already the case that disk drives capable of reading 5¼-inch floppy disks are not readily available.
The Digital Dark Age also applies to the problems which arise due to obsolete file formats. In this case it is the lack of the necessary software which causes problems when retrieving stored documents. This is especially problematic when proprietary formats are used, in which case it might be impossible to write appropriate software to read the file.
A famous real example is with NASA, whose early space records were suffering from a Dark Age issue: for over a decade, magnetic tapes from the 1976 Viking Mars landing were unprocessed. When later analyzed, the data was unreadable as it was in an unknown format and the original programmers had either died or left NASA. The images were eventually extracted following many months of puzzling through the data and examining how the recording machines functioned.
Encrypted data may also prove to be an issue, as the process needed to decode the data is intentionally made as obscure as possible. Historically encrypted data is quite rare but even the very simple means available throughout history have provided many examples of documents that can only be read with great effort. For example, it took the capacity of a distributed computing project to break the mechanically generated code of a single brief World War II submarine tactical message.
Modern encryption is being used in many more documents and media due to publishers wanting the promised protections of DRM (digital rights management. This very widespread use of encryption closes down several of the routes (e.g.: forgotten in the attic) by which the last few copies of documents and media that are later deemed to be historically significant can be recovered.
In 2007, Microsoft created a partnership with The National Archives of the United States of America to prevent the digital dark age and ‘unlock millions of unreadable stored computer files.’ This involves moving files from their old proprietary formats to their open format Open XML. Open source is where the source code for reading and writing a file format is public. The Internet Archive, which indexes the Internet, has stated that one of their goals is to prevent the digital dark age.