Digital Dark Age – Vint Cerf’s Warning

Style: "Portrait B&W"

Gone are the days of photo albums and their sticky little pages and cellophane covers. Gone are the days of family photos hanging on the staircase wall for all visitors to see. We’re in the digital age now, people. If it happens, it’s going on Facebook or Pinterest or Instagram or Vine. We no longer hold our most precious memories in our hands, unless it’s the hands that hold or phones or cameras or type into our little machines that occasionally piss us off.

Did you ever stop and think, “What would happen to all my photos, files, and life history on the Internet if it suddenly all disappeared tomorrow? Would history remember me? Or would I be a mere bug stain on the windshield of life?”

Vint Cerf, the ‘Father of the Internet,’ certainly has. And he issued a dire warning this week about that very thing, saying that “he is worried that all the images and documents we have been saving on computers will eventually be lost.”

Our first steps into the digital world could be lost to future historians, Cerf told the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose, California, warning that we face a “forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century” through what he called “bit rot,” where old computer files become useless junk.

“We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realizing it. We digitize things because we think we will preserve them, but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps, those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse, than the artefacts that we digitized,” Cerf told the Guardian.

So what should we do to remedy this? Cerf went on to tell The Guardian’s Ian Sample, “If there are photos you really care about, print them out.”

While images are only one part of the problem, there is certainly a lesson to be learned here. If it truly matters – text, images, etc. – then you should find a way to preserve that memory, quote, article or recipe to hard copy. Printer ink manufactures are surely rejoicing at this idea.

What Cerf is calling for is the development of “digital vellum,” which would in essence “preserve old software and hardware so that out-of-date files could be recovered no matter how old they are.”

“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,” he said.

“We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them, we need to make sure that the digital objects we create today can still be rendered far into the future,” he told Sample.

Clearly there is something that should be done. But what, if anything, can be done right now? Buy more printer ink and hope for the best? Surely someone will figure it out, but for now I’ll be backing up my files a bit more regularly.

Image Courtesy Joi Ito/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Love, Lola

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