Imagine if our period of history never existed. This fear could be a reality unless our digital information — from tweets to emails — is preserved, a top Internet pioneer has warned.
Google Vice President Vint Cerf said future historians looking to study the 21st century will find an “information black hole” because the programs needed to view our digital files will soon become be obsolete.
Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting on Thursday, Cerf argued the world needed “digital vellum” — a way to preserve digital information over a long period of time so that in the future, our files will be readable.
“The emails, the tweets, and all the other things that we take for granted today may have evaporated into thin air because nobody preserved them,” Cerf told delegates.
Cerf said this has already been seen: in VHS tapes. People still have them, he explained, but finding the device to play them is becoming increasingly difficult. Even if future historians had our Excel files, there is no guarantee that they will have the right software to “interpret” it because it would be defunct, the Google executive said.
“We don’t have a standard way of hanging onto the software as well as the bits of these digital objects so that we can use them years and years later,” Cerf warned.
History has been so far preserved on materials such as papyrus or baked clay, Cerf said, but scholars in the future would be faced with a bunch of digital files from our time that they would not be able to decipher.
But there is hope that our civilization’s history will be preserved. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, led by a man called Mahadev Satyanarayanan, have begun a project called Olive.
Under this mission, the researchers capture a “snapshot” of programs and the operating system on which they run. This can then be opened on a so-called “virtual machine” — a piece of software that replicates the operating system on which the original software runs. So in a hundred years, if someone wanted to open a Word document from Microsoft Office 97, this would be possible.
However, there still could be problems ahead. Cerf said there could be legal issues over copying some software while it is still in use, but preserving the data should be written into copyright law.
“One problem is that the software may have intellectual property rights attached to them, so you may not have any right to keep copies,” he said. “You might not be able to share a copy…with somebody else.”
Image credit: CC by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center