Beware the Digital Dark Age

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“Even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is” Vint Cerf, Google Vice-President, February 2015

Vint Cerf, Google VP, is worried that all the images and documents we have been saving on computers will eventually be irretrievable and future generations will have little or no record of the 21st Century. According to Cerf, we are entering a “digital Dark Age” which will occur as hardware and software become obsolete. Our most pressing concern, right now, should be to resolve the problem before we are in so deep we inadvertently eradicate our own history.

Momentos of our lives increasingly exist not as tangible artifacts but as bits of information on hard drives or in ‘the cloud.’  As technology advances and the software and hardware that mediates this information changes, our information – the proof of our lives and the content of culture – risks being lost in the wake of accelerating digital transformation.

Speaking at a conference in San Jose, California, Mr Cerf likened the problem to the Dark Ages, following the collapse of the Roman Empire. “If we don’t find a solution our 21st Century will be an information black hole. Future generations will wonder about us but they will have very great difficulty knowing about us. We think about digitizing 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 artifacts that we digitized.”

“We stand to lose a lot of our history. If you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives which is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, all of the world wide web, then if you wanted to see what was on the web in 1994 you’d have trouble doing that. A lot of the stuff disappears.”

“We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them the same way we preserve books and so on we need to make sure that the digital objects we create will be rendered far into the future.”

Mr Cerf told the BBC he worries often about the blind spot we seem to have concerning the permanence of things digital. “Old formats of documents that we’ve created or presentations may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backwards compatibility is not always guaranteed. And so what can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is.”

So how can we guarantee that personal and human history is transmissible long term? According to Cerf, the solution is digital as well, which is somewhat disconcerting to say the least. “The solution is to take an X-ray snapshot of the content and the application and the operating system together, with a description of the machine that it runs on, and preserve that for long periods of time. And that digital snapshot will recreate the past in the future…Imagine that it is the year 3000 and you’ve done a Google search. The X-ray snapshot we are trying to capture should be transportable from one place to another. So, I should be able to move it from the Google cloud to some other cloud, or move it into a machine I have. The key here is when you move those bits from one place to another, that you still know how to unpack them to correctly interpret the different parts. That is all achievable if we standardize the descriptions. And that’s the key issue here – how do I ensure in the distant future that the standards are still known, and I can still interpret this carefully constructed X-ray snapshot? (italics added) It’s not without its rough edges but the major concept has been shown to work,” Mr Cerf said.

Of course, a digital solution to a digital problem suffers from the same drawbacks as the problem it seeks to address, which seems to be lost even on Cerf. In our privatized hyper-capitalist world, where governments shy from even the most basic cultural mandates, private interests would have to provide the service, and even the most robust private companies have limited life spans. Do we really want to delegate our cultural memory to Google or Apple or Microsoft? IBM, anyone?

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Needless to say, skepticism is essential. Addressing digital conundrums with digital solutions shows a tunnel vision too often associated with technological advocacy. The loss of the tangible, the real, is a frightening prospect that simply isn’t being addressed at present. Still in the honeymoon phase of digital reality, we as a culture are content to remain blindly and willfully ignorant of the problem. The stakes, however, are enormous, as we are speaking about the very basis of human culture, which is dependent upon the uninterrupted transmission and permanence of accumulated cultural and personal artifacts and experience. I’ve recently written about the same problem being addressed by the film industry.  And this is why tangible media like paper and film are essential and will always remain so. To admit so is not Luddism, but a real progressiveness based upon a skeptical stance to the ultimate benefits of computer technology. when the alarm is raised we should listen.

Even Cerf ultimately gets that. His suggestion for archiving things you want to save: Print them out and save a tangible copy to avoid losing them through outdated operating systems.

“We have various formats for digital photographs and movies and those formats need software to correctly render those objects. Sometimes the standards we use to produce those objects fade away and are replaced by other alternatives and then software that is supposed to render images can’t render older formats, so the images are no longer visible. This is starting to happen to people who are saving a lot of their digital photographs because they are just files of bits. The file system doesn’t know how to interpret them, you need software to do that. Now you’ve lost the photograph in effect.”

“If there are pictures that you really really care about then creating a physical instance is probably a good idea. Print them out, literally.’