Digital material could be lost!

Online media all a-Twitter as Google president warns of digital “Dark Age”.

Google’s vice-president Vint Cerf warns that a whole century of digital material could be lost.

Google's Vint Cerf
Google’s Vint Cerf

If, like me, you keep your most precious memories digitally filed away then prepare for a shock. As digital technology moves on, old formats of documents that we’ve created may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backwards compatibility is not always guaranteed. This means that:

  • Cherished photographs
  • Correspondence
  • Videos
  • Social interactions on Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc.
  • Manuscripts
  • Music
  • Medical records
  • Accounts

and everything else we store online may one day be lost to history as digital technology evolves.

Going the way of all things?
Going the way of all things?

The online world responds The online is ablaze with chatter, with some Twitter account holders suggesting we now print everything, while others discuss the implications this has for the print and music industry. Hundreds of articles have appeared on Google+ discussing Vert’s claims, with some arguing that despite these fear stories the ability for clever code writers to write conversion tools for old files won’t go away.  Others argue that while format obsolescence is certainly a problem, it is neither significant nor pressing for most digital resources. To print or not to print? As the online world tries to go paper free it is ironic to consider that hard copy may now be the best way to conserve information.

The new future
The new future?

Consider this: It is still possible to read records dating back 5,000 years ago that were imprinted onto clay tablets by Sumerian merchants eager to take stock of their goods. It is indeed a sobering thought to think that digital records created 20 years ago may be unreadable.

5,000 years old and still readable
5,000 years old and still readable

Unless a way is found to record the way we store information now, then future historians will find a digital black hole where the early 21st century used to be – blogs, tweets, pictures and videos, official documents such as court rulings and emails will be lost forever because the programs needed to view them will become defunct. Perhaps those Sumerian scribes have a point – if it’s important to you, make a hard copy while you still can.

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One thought on “Digital material could be lost!”

  1. Hi there! So your link here on my own site! I think the problem I had with his claim (which in my view is scaremongering) was that it was Google saying it. We know their insatiable appetite for data and I believe the control of it. Google would love nothing more than the netverse to come to them data in hand begging Google for help, in my view. I’ve had no problem with data and as an extreme example, I can even boot up a spectrum emulator (free software), plug a tape recorder into my rig and load a game from audiotape (if I so wish)

    The only thing people need to be concerned about is backup, backup no matter what medium you are using and remember (currently at least) there is no method to guarantee that your data will be indestructible and last forever. The plus side though is there is no degradation with making copy upon copy, so you can backup as much as want – the more is the better, if the data is valuable.


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