The Digital Dark Age

Only seven great dramas survive
    Of the seventy Sophocles wrote.
From the Book of the Wars of the Lord
    There is only a fifteen-word quote.
The paintings of Zeuxis were splendid
    Now nothing is left from his hand.
The ancients had seven great wonders
    But now only the Pyramids stand

In the twentieth century as well
    This great disappearance goes on.
Half of all American movies
    Made before 1950 are gone.
Languages, art work, and dance
    Have also met annihilation.
Le Sacre de Printemps marked an epoch
    What we have is a new fabrication.

"But this sad disappearance and loss
    Is surely a thing of the past.
Now that all is in digital form
    Our creations eternally last
Our descendants will always have access
    To everything good that we've done."
Alas, digital records as well
    Can vanish from under the sun.

Thousands of magnetic tapes
    That were made from the Viking Mars landing
Were left for a decade, and then
    They were almost past all understanding.
The BBC Domésday project,
    The labor of millions of folk,
Was nearly eternally lost
    Quite unlike the original book.

To preserve a digital record
    There are three things that have to survive:
The hardware and software to read it
    And the medium where it's inscribed.
But media deteriorate
    If neglected for multiple years
And hardware becomes obsolete
    There's now no one who makes VCRs.

And software is worse. In the scramble
    To make everything better and faster
Making sure code is backward compatible
    Is forgotten. That leads to disaster.
The program, the language, the drivers,
    The OS on which all this relied
Each came from a separate vendor
    who retired, went bankrupt, or died.

And as for the Web, just forget it.
    Eighteen years ago, looking ahead
I assembled a page of resources
    Those links are now almost all dead.
And don't even allow me to start
    On the problems of trying to show
Masterpieces of digital art
    From merely a decade ago.

You can read the Aeneid of Virgil
    Composed in Augustus's day.
You can study the Gilgamesh epic
    Which was written on tablets of clay.
The Pyramids stand as they did
    In 2500 BC.
Five millennia into the future
    What record of us will there be?


This is part of the collection Verses for the Information Age by Ernest Davis