Digital Dark Age

Google’s Vint Cerf warns of digital ‘Dark Age’

“Father of the Internet” warns of ‘forgotten century’ with email and photos particularly at risk.

Google vice-president Professor Vinton Cerf
Google vice-president Professor Vinton Cerf

Digital material including key historical documents could be lost forever because programs to view them will become defunct, says Vint Cerf.

Remember this?
Remember this?

“If there are photos you really care about – print them out!”

In a speech at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose, California, Vint said:

“When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history,”.

The problem with digital technology

The problem seems to be that the hardware and software that we currently use to store digital information will become obsolete as technology evolves. As an example of this we might look at the way that the floppy disc gave way to memory sticks. All those files we saved in a digital format to ensure their long-term survival will be lost as the programs and hardware needed to make sense of the files continually fall out of use resulting in digital black hole.

 The Solution

Some institutions are already taking the situation very seriously.

America’s Library of Congress is to create a digital archive of Twitter as a historical record, whilst in Britain the UK Web Archiving Consortium (UKWAC) has been working to archive websites for future generations since 2004.

But what if the software is no longer available to open these files?

Cerf called for the development of “digital vellum” to preserve old software and hardware so that out-of-date files could be recovered no matter how old they are. Meanwhile Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh are taking digital snapshots of computer hard drives running different software programs which can then be uploaded to a computer that reads the otherwise defunct files.

It’s an ironic twist that social media declaimers, the technologically challenged and those otherwise living off the grid have been maintaining all along – it turns out that books and old-fashioned printed photos may be the best way of preserving information after all.

Check back soon for more details – but don’t wait too long, you may not be able to open me!

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