mfioretti: digital dark ages*

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  1. Mostly EU workers on short-term contracts in fish-processing or tourism, new residents rarely need to master Icelandic, with its three genders, four cases and six verb forms. In the bars, restaurants and shops of downtown Reykjavík, it can be a struggle for locals to get served in their native language.

    Online, however, is the biggest concern. Apart from Google – which, mainly because it has an Icelandic engineer, has added Icelandic speech recognition to its Android mobile operating system – the internet giants have no interest in offering Icelandic options for a population the size of Cardiff’s.

    “For them, it costs the same to digitally support Icelandic as it does to digitally support French,” Eiríkur said. “Apple, Amazon … If they look at their spreadsheets, they’ll never do it. You can’t make a business case.”

    Where Icelandic versions do exist, said Nowenstein, they are not perfect. “You can switch Facebook to Icelandic, but it’s not good at dealing with cases,” she said. “So people get fed up with seeing their names in the wrong grammatical form, and switch back to English.”

    Max Naylor, a UK academic also involved in the study, said he had emailed and written to Apple several times but had never received a reply. “We’re not expecting a fully-functioning operating system, but the hope is that they will at least open themselves up to collaboration,” he said.

    The Icelandic government is setting aside 450m krónur (£3.1m) a year over the next five years for a language technology fund it hopes will produce open-source materials developers could use, but the challenge – from apps and voice-activated fridges to social media and self-driving cars – is immense.
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  2. Since she first started specializing in old documents, Watson has expanded beyond things written in English. She now has a stable of collaborators who can tackle manuscripts in Latin, German, Spanish, and more. She can only remember two instances that left her and her colleagues stumped. One was a Tibetan manuscript, and she couldn’t find anyone who knew the alphabet. The other was in such bad shape that she had to admit defeat.

    In the business of reading old documents, Watson has few competitors. There is one transcription company on the other side of the world, in Australia, that offers a similar service. Libraries and archives, when they have a giant batch of handwritten documents to deal with, might recruit volunteers. Even today, when computers have started to excel at reading books, handwritten works escape their understanding. Scholars who study medieval manuscripts have been working on programs that might have a chance of helping with this task, but right now a trained eye is still the best and only way to make real progress.
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  3. A video game’s look and feel is often highly dependent on specific hardware setups, and for most of the medium’s history, those setups often involved a CRT. The iconic black scanlines we associate with old games, for instance, exist because consoles would tell a TV to only draw every other line — thus avoiding the flickering that interlaced video could produce, and smoothing out the overall image. (For more detail, retro gaming enthusiast Tobias Reich maintains an exhaustive guide about scanlines and other CRT rendering issues.) Old games may look torn or feel laggy on a new TV. That’s in part because LCD screens process an entire frame of an image and then display it, rather than receiving a signal and drawing it right away.

    Some games are completely dependent on the display technology. One of the best-known examples is Duck Hunt, which uses Nintendo’s Zapper light gun. When players pull the trigger, the entire screen briefly flashes black, then a white square appears at the “duck’s” location. If the optical sensor detects a quick black-then-white pattern, it’s a hit. The entire Zapper system is coded for a CRT’s super fast refresh rate, and it doesn’t work on new LCD TVs without significant DIY modification.

    A less extreme — but much more popular — case is Super Smash Bros. Melee, a 2001 Nintendo GameCube title that’s become one of the most beloved fighting games of all time. Originally designed for casual players at parties, Melee upends the conventions set by series like Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat: instead of memorizing combos to chip down an opponent’s health bar, players try to knock each other off the screen using careful positioning and improvised, super fast moves. Despite its age, and the increasing difficulty of finding a copy, it’s a mainstay at fighting game tournaments.
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  4. I contenuti di Facebook – dicono i due esperti – non sono indicizzati dai motori di ricerca, quindi qualsiasi discussione rilevante che avviene da quelle parti rimarrà confinata agli iscritti. Linkare simili contenuti da fuori è quasi impossibile, specie se non possiedi un profilo Facebook.

    E cosa accadrebbe domani se Facebook dovesse chiudere? Le nostre parole scivolerebbero via come lacrime nella pioggia, l’esatto opposto di quello che Internet ha da sempre immaginato. Già oggi Facebook vieta all’Internet Archive, l’anima documentale di Internet, di salvare schermate rilevanti da archiviare per i posteri.

    Alcuni anni fa la Biblioteca del Congresso varò un progetto per archiviare tutti i tweet prodotti al mondo. Erano forse i bibliotecari americani interessati alle sciocchezze irrilevanti che scriviamo dal divano mentre guardiamo la partita? Ovviamente no. Avevano semplicemente capito che la memoria storica oggi viaggia nascosta nei piccoli frammenti delle comunicazioni di rete. È per questo che il peccato di superbia di Facebook è oggi un tema pubblico di dimensioni gigantesche.
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  5. What about the actual functioning of the application: What tweets are displayed to whom in what order? Every major social-networking service uses opaque algorithms to shape what data people see. Why does Facebook show you this story and not that one? No one knows, possibly not even the company’s engineers. Outsiders know basically nothing about the specific choices these algorithms make. Journalists and scholars have built up some inferences about the general features of these systems, but our understanding is severely limited. So, even if the LOC has the database of tweets, they still wouldn’t have Twitter.

    In a new paper, “Stewardship in the ‘Age of Algorithms,’” Clifford Lynch, the director of the Coalition for Networked Information, argues that the paradigm for preserving digital artifacts is not up to the challenge of preserving what happens on social networks.

    Over the last 40 years, archivists have begun to gather more digital objects—web pages, PDFs, databases, kinds of software. There is more data about more people than ever before, however, the cultural institutions dedicated to preserving the memory of what it was to be alive in our time, including our hours on the internet, may actually be capturing less usable information than in previous eras.

    “We always used to think for historians working 100 years from now: We need to preserve the bits (the files) and emulate the computing environment to show what people saw a hundred years ago,” said Dan Cohen, a professor at Northeastern University and the former head of the Digital Public Library of America. “Save the HTML and save what a browser was and what Windows 98 was and what an Intel chip was. That was the model for preservation for a decade or more.”

    Which makes sense: If you want to understand how WordPerfect, an old word processor, functioned, then you just need that software and some way of running it.

    But if you want to document the experience of using Facebook five years ago or even two weeks ago ... how do you do it?

    The truth is, right now, you can’t. No one (outside Facebook, at least) has preserved the functioning of the application. And worse, there is no thing that can be squirreled away for future historians to figure out. “The existing models and conceptual frameworks of preserving some kind of ‘canonical’ digital artifacts are increasingly inapplicable in a world of pervasive, unique, personalized, non-repeatable performances,” Lynch writes.

    Nick Seaver of Tufts University, a researcher in the emerging field of “algorithm studies,” wrote a broader summary of the issues with trying to figure out what is happening on the internet. He ticks off the problems of trying to pin down—or in our case, archive—how these web services work. One, they’re always testing out new versions. So there isn’t one Google or one Bing, but “10 million different permutations of Bing.” Two, as a result of that testing and their own internal decision-making, “You can’t log into the same Facebook twice.” It’s constantly changing in big and small ways. Three, the number of inputs and complex interactions between them simply makes these large-scale systems very difficult to understand, even if we have access to outputs and some knowledge of inputs.

    “What we recognize or ‘discover’ when critically approaching algorithms from the outside is often partial, temporary, and contingent,” Seaver concludes.

    The world as we experience it seems to be growing more opaque. More of life now takes place on digital platforms that are different for everyone, closed to inspection, and massively technically complex. What we don't know now about our current experience will resound through time in historians of the future knowing less, too. Maybe this era will be a new dark age, as resistant to analysis then as it has become now.

    If we do want our era to be legible to future generations, our “memory organizations” as Lynch calls them, must take radical steps to probe and document social networks like Facebook. Lynch suggests creating persistent, socially embedded bots that exist to capture a realistic and demographically broad set of experiences on these platforms. Or, alternatively, archivists could go out and recruit actual humans to opt in to having their experiences recorded, as ProPublica has done with political advertising on Facebook.
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  6. And it isn’t just about preserving all the bits. “The more critical question is no matter what the medium is in which digital bits are recorded, how long will we be able to read them, and how long will we make sense out of them…? E » ven pretending you could read the disk again, do you have the software that knows what the bits mean?’
    Tags: , by M. Fioretti (2016-11-19)
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  7. Greer’s archive includes floppy disks, tape cassettes and CD-roms, once cutting-edge technologies that are now obsolete. They are vulnerable to decay and disintegration, leftovers from the unrelenting tide of technological advancement. They will last mere decades, unlike the paper records, which could survive for hundreds of years.

    Buchanan and her team are now working out how to access, catalogue and preserve the thousands of files on these disks, some of them last opened in the 1980s. “We don’t really know what’s going to unfold,” Buchanan says.

    The Greer archivists are facing a challenge that extends far beyond the scope of their collection. Out of this process come enormous questions about the fate of records that are “born digital”, meaning they didn’t start out in paper form. Record-keepers around the world are worried about information born of zeroes and ones – binary code, the building blocks of any digital file.

    Archives are the paydirt of history. Everything else is opinion
    Germaine Greer

    Like floppy disks of the past, information stored on USB sticks, on shared drives or in the cloud is so easily lost, changed or corrupted that we risk losing decades of knowledge if we do not figure out how to manage it properly.

    Though the problem applies to everyone – from classic video-game enthusiasts to people who keep photos on smartphones – it is particularly pressing for universities and other institutions responsible for the creation and preservation of knowledge.
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  8. "We save it as a picture as it's longer life than a file. You don't rely on PowerPoint or Word. In 50 years they can still just look at it,"
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  9. Se infatti lo scorso 12 marzo sono state pubblicate in Gazzetta Ufficiale le nuove Regole tecniche per la conservazione dei documenti informatici e per il protocollo informatico, manca ancora all'appello un tassello fondamentale per permettere che la gestione e la conservazione dei documenti informatici avvengano in maniera davvero corretta e sicura, ovvero le Regole tecniche in materia di formazione e di gestione documentale e le Regole tecniche sulla sicurezza dei dati, dei sistemi e delle infrastrutture.

    Come possiamo procedere, infatti, alla conservazione digitale dei documenti informatici, obbligatoria per legge, se prima non abbiamo tutte le Regole tecniche che costituiscono l'abc per formare e gestire correttamente e in sicurezza questi documenti?
    Per garantire ai nuovi archivi digitali, e quindi al patrimonio inestimabile della nostra memoria, sicurezza, autenticità e affidabilità nel tempo, gli Stati Generali della Memoria Digitale sollecitano quindi con urgenza le istituzioni competenti a emanare le Regole Tecniche ancora mancanti, il cui iter è bloccato da ormai troppo tempo, nella convinzione che solo con un apparato normativo completo l'innovazione digitale potrà proseguire nel nostro Paese su solide basi.
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  10. ‘All of it’ turned out to be 25 boxes full of tins containing several thousand 60-metre rolls of photos, and quickly-deteriorating magnetic film with infrared imagery – unopened, and labeled with useless information on orbit numbers rather than locations. But the prize was too great, and he was running out of time: with the surviving NASA scientists who had taken the original images well into their 80s, he knew it wasn’t long before the knowledge he needed to decipher the data would be gone forever.

    Gallaher started the process of sifting through roll after roll of film. The visible-light images he was scanning weren’t the originals: using the best technology of the time, the had played back the images from the satellites on a TV monitor, then snapped photographs of the TV. What he had were those images, sporadically placed along rolls of film as long as the wingspan of a Boeing 787.

    Gallaher sent the film containing infrared data off to a Montreal, Quebec-based company, JBI, which rescued the data for $10 a spool. By the end, Gallaher had over 200,000 images – a remarkable 99 percent of the data – amounting to several gigabytes of data. A truckload of film canisters fit on a thumb drive.

    “That was an incredible amount of data,” he says. In the sixties, when the images were recorded, “that was more storage than there was available on the planet.”

    It was worth the wait. What Gallaher and his NSIDC colleague Garrett Campbell had discovered was both the largest and the smallest Antarctic sea ice extent ever recorded, one year apart, as well as the earliest sea ice maximum ever just three years later; it was an inexplicable hole in the Arctic sea ice even while the overall extent agreed with modern trends; it was the earliest known picture of Europe from space; it was a picture of the Aral Sea with water still in it.

    It was, as Gallaher puts it, like looking at “the Precambrian of satellite data.”

    The team at the National Snow and Ice Data Center made the images available online in the searchable, standardized format that Gallaher originally wished it had been. The images hadn’t been intended for use in sea ice research, or in long-term study of trends, but it has been repurposed to serve a multitude of purposes.

    The data dump is currently facilitating a flurry of activity as scientists around the world use the images to answer questions about deforestation, weather patterns, and any other line of inquiry that can benefit from an answer to the question, “what happened before that?”

    And there is more of it out there – more canisters awaiting liberation in dusty back rooms of storage centres, and even data from entirely different sources besides satellites. Taken together, it’s called “dark data,” potentially valuable information locked away in unusable formats, unknown to most of the world, some of it never even seen by human eyes.

    Spurred on by his discovery, Gallaher is in the process of starting an organization to recover more dark data, if he can raise enough money.

    The original cost to American taxpayers to gather the images was in the billions (in today’s dollars). “For a few hundred thousand dollars I could get it all back,” he says.

    “Before this stuff gets lost, let’s keep it.”
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