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Internet Pioneer Warns Our Era Could Become The 'Digital Dark Ages'

Vint Cerf in a photo from last year. Cerf is warning of a possible "digital Dark Ages" if the world's data isn't permanently preserved.
Andre Penner
Vint Cerf in a photo from last year. Cerf is warning of a possible "digital Dark Ages" if the world's data isn't permanently preserved.

What happens when today's high-tech data storage systems become tomorrow's floppy discs?

Google Vice President Vint Cerf is concerned about the answer and its implications for preserving history. Speaking at a conference of top American scientists, Cerf described such a loss of important information as a possible "digital Dark Ages."

Engineering and Technology Magazine reports that Cerf, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, says that by using digital storage for all of our books, documents and photos, we could be setting up a big problem for future historians who want to study the 21st century.

"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 realizing it," he said.

The conundrum isn't exactly new: in 2006, the U.S. Department of Energy threw $11 million at researchers from three universities and five national laboratoriesin hopes of finding a solution to "managing the torrent of data that will be produced by the coming generation of supercomputers." And, there are companies that offer services for converting data from outdated systems to something that's still usable today.

E&T writes:

"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 interpretable bits of information we leave behind.

"In our zeal to get excited about digitizing we digitize 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."

As an example, Cerf points to a book by author and presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. In Team of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln, Goodwin relied heavily on poring over the physical letters sent between Lincoln and his contemporaries.

As The Telegraph, quoting Cerf, notes: "Such a book might not be possible to write about the people living today ... — the digital content such as emails that an author might need will have 'evaporated because nobody saved it, or it's around but it's not interpretable because it was created by software that's 100 years old'."

Cerf calls the problem the "digital vellum" and says one solution might be to take a digital "snapshot" when an item is stored, recording all the elements needed to reproduce it at a later date. E&T says:

"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.'"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.