Digital data storage may leave future in dark about us, warns Cerf

13 February 2015
By Tereza Pultarova
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Vint Cerf, one of the men credited with inventing Internet

Vint Cerf, one of the men credited with inventing Internet

Archaeologists of the future may struggle to interpret the 21st century civilisation due to missing written records if our digital trace is erased, Internet godfather has warned.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science taking place in San Jose, California, Vint Cerf, one of the men credited with the invention of Internet and a current Vice President of Google, warned relying solely on digital data storage to keep books, texts and photographs may be short-sighted.

"If we're thinking 1,000 years, 3,000 years ahead in the future, we have to ask ourselves, how do we preserve all the bits that we need in order to correctly interpret the digital objects we create?,” Cerf said.

"We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realising it.

Comparing the future knowledge about the 21st century to the post-Roman period in Western Europe of which relatively little is known due to the lack of written records, Cerf said the future generations may as well ‘wonder about us’ while having great difficulty to understand due to the uninterpretable bits of information we leave behind.

"In our zeal to get excited about digitising we digitise photographs thinking it's going to make them last longer, and we might turn out to be wrong," he said. "I would say if there are photos you are really concerned about create a physical instance of them. Print them out."

Referring to a book by American Pulitzer winning writer Doris Kearns Goodwin who reconstructed conversations between Abraham Lincoln and his friends through the analysis of his correspondence, Cerf said future historians may struggle to do the same for current luminaries due to the either missing or unreadable digital record.

"Let us imagine that there's a 22nd-century Doris Kearns Goodwin and she decides to write about the beginning of the 21st century and seeks to reproduce the conversations of the time,” he said. “She discovers that there's an awful lot of digital content that either has evaporated because nobody saved it, or its around but it's not interpretable because it was created by software that's 100 years old."

The problem may become even more serious when it comes to storing legal documents.

"We're going to have to build into our thinking the concept of preservation writ large," Cerf added.

One possible solution was what he called "digital vellum", a concept now being explored by computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

This involved taking a digital "snapshot" at the time an item is stored of all the processes needed to reproduce it at a later date, including the software and operating system.

The snapshot could then be used to reproduce the game, picture file or spread sheet, on a "modern" computer, perhaps centuries from now.

"Some people make the argument that the important stuff will be copied and put into new media and so why should we worry," said Cerf. "But ... historians will tell you that sometimes documents and transactions images and so on may turn out to have an importance which is not understood for hundreds of years. So failure to preserve them will cause us to lose our perspective."

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