Digital Dark Age

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On this week’s episode of On the Media, we’re engaging in some chillingly informed speculation: what would happen if we, as a species, lost access to our electronic records? What if, either by the slow creep of  technological obsolescence or sudden cosmic disaster, we no longer could draw from the well of of knowledge accrued through the ages? What if we fell into...a digital dark age?

One scenario we explore isn’t speculative: it’s real. In the 1990’s, NASA experienced its own version of a digital dark age, when more than a million reels of data -- including the 1969 Apollo Moonwalk video and Earthrise, the iconic picture of our planet floating above the surface of the moon -- were either destroyed or rendered unreadable. We hear from Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee and co-founder of an initiative to rescue images and readings from the Lunar Orbiter missions, including that 1966 Earthrise photo: the first view of Earth from the moon.

Internet pioneer and Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf says we’ve grown complacent in our approach to media storage. If we don’t take action now, he warns, we may find ourselves lost in a future where we can’t access important media documents, scientific data, or treasured family photos. He tells us about combating the phenomenon he calls “bit rot,” as well as the role he thinks Google ought to play in the fight.

Meanwhile, in outer space, we look at the possibility of digital disruption from an unexpected source: the sun. Earlier this week, a solar flare caused auroras in the night sky as far south as Georgia. And in 1859, a huge flare caused telegraph machines to spontaneously catch fire. Astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz tells us that story, and explains the science behind it.

If we’ve gotten you sufficiently concerned about your personal histories falling victim to defunct hard drives and ephemeral cloud storage, never fear, DNA is here! We hear from Dr. Nick Goldman, a genome scientist who thinks coding information inside DNA is the best way to apocalypse-proof the world’s data.

Plus, Margaret Atwood, chronicler of all things dystopian, tells us about her latest work… which won’t be published for 99 years.

We also have a resource guide to help you protect (or recover) your media from obsolescence. 

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