Call me prescient or just the ever-pessimist, but I was telling people this for some time: let’s get that digital stuff on paper.
How old fashioned! But here’s the thing. Few send you a photograph of their new babies anymore, or an actual bona fide letter with a stamp on the envelope. They post the stuff to Facebook and call it good enough.
But what happens when technology (and other things) change, making access to digital images and information inaccessible?
I know, I know. We’re warned that the stuff we post on Facebook will be there forever. I say: fat chance. Maybe long enough to make your natural life miserable, but not long enough for future historians to understand who we were, what we did, how we thought, and more.
It could all go poof! in the blink of an eye.
Now “Google’s vice president has warned internet users to print out treasured photographs or risk losing them,” according to a story in the Telegraph. “Vint Cerf, the internet pioneer, said it was time to start preserving the vast quantities of digital data which are produced before they are lost forever.”
We think that current file formats, storage methods, and operating systems will be around for the ages. Word up: they won’t.
“Warning that the 21st century could become a second ‘Dark Ages’ because so much data is now kept in digital format, he said that future generations would struggle to understand our society because technology is advancing so quickly that old files will be inaccessible,” noted the Telegraph.
Cerf likens the problem to a period called the Dark Ages following the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, after which records, writing, engineering, and other technology of the time seemed to vanish into thin air.
“If we don’t find a solution our 21st Century will be an information black hole,” Cerf argues. “Future generations will wonder about us but they will have very great difficulty knowing about us.”
Cerf advocates the creation of a system which will not only store a digital format but preserve details of the software and operating systems needed to access all of it.
“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,” he explained.
It’s one thing to find an old computer that can still read a “floppy disk” (remember those?) or get a guy who’s good with electronics to fix a VCR so you can watch an old tape. But with digitized information — there aren’t tangible items to procure to solve the problem.
The digital generation has probably made more comments, taken more photographs, and recorded more bits of daily doings than any in history. It would be a gold mine surpassing even the library in Alexandria (which was destroyed by fire, an event historians still lament).
But it could be the most easily lost repository in the history of the world, according to Cerf.
Crank up the printer. Get prints of those baby pictures and graduation photos. Get real live printed versions of your favorite books. Technology changes in unexpected ways. But what we humans need in order to understand the past remains the same.