A digital dark age may be coming, Google VP warns

digital dark age strike 21st century history internet creator warns vint cerf
Joi Ito/Flickr
Father of the Internet and Google Vice President Vint Cerf has issued a warning to photographers and data storage lovers at large: Physically print your data or risk losing it to a digital dark age.

Cerf spoke at the annual conference of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California, and warned that data could be lost forever in the coming decades, BBC News reported. Photos, documents, software, videogames — anything on your computer is just data, Cerf explained, and computers use various programs or operating systems to access that data. However, as time goes on, these methods of accessing data can become outmoded. Try getting at the data in a floppy disc, or watching a VCR tape, or even loading up a three year old version of Photoshop on your computer now — it’s impossible. As technology advances, various methods of accessing and manipulating data get lost.

The idea of losing all records from the 21st century, disturbs Cerf, so he proposed the creation of a system that both stores data of all sorts and also saves the details necessary to access the data. He calls it Digital Vellum. Emulators do this already for both video game systems and older versions of software, for example. When Macs made the change from a 32-to-64-bit architecture operating system, the new system was made to emulate a 32-bit system, so that older software could still be used.

The task of storing the Internet and its changes over time is, needless to say, something that would take a while to accomplish. In the meantime, however, Cerf suggests making physical copies of what you can, before various apps and operating systems become outmoded. “Print them out, literally,” he said of documents and photographs. Another reason for the worry concerns world history.

“If we don’t find a solution, our 21st century will be an information black hole,” Cerf said. “Future generations will wonder about us, but they will have very great difficulty knowing about us.”

He continues on to say that the Web is increasingly becoming the place where things happen and are documented, but already we have years that are lost. He points out that “if you wanted to see what was on the Web in 1994, you’d have trouble doing that. A lot of the stuff disappears.”


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