Tags: digital | storage | dark ages | lost

Internet 'Father' Cerf: Digital Storage Threatens Online 'Dark Ages'

By    |   Saturday, 14 February 2015 10:45 AM

Images and documents saved online and on computers could be lost as technology changes, leaving future generations with few records of the 21st century, warns Vint Cerf, a Google vice-president often called a "father of the Internet."

"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," Cerf told at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose this week, reports Engineering and Technology Magazine."I would say if there are photos you are really concerned about, create a physical instance of them. Print them out."

In an interview after the San Jose appearance, Cerf told the BBC that the danger is that "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. 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."

Cerf, though, is promoting an idea to preserve all software and hardware in digital form so that it never becomes obsolete.

"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," he said. "And that digital snapshot will recreate the past in the future."

But that company would have to provide the service, and that company would likely not be around hundreds of years from now,  Cerf acknowledged.

"I think it is amusing to imagine that it is the year 3000 and you've done a Google search," said Cerf. "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."

The concept has already been demonstrated by Carnegie Mellon University's Mahadev Satyanarayanan, and Cerf, who spoke at CMU this week, said the process still has "its rough edges, but the major concept has been shown to work."

Meanwhile, until that happens, the digital storage now being used is in danger of becoming quickly obsolete, Cerf said in his San Jose appearance.

"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 told the meeting. "We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realizing it."

The issue has been a concern for some time, reports NPR.  Back in 2006, the U.S. Department of Energy spent $11 million for a project for researchers from three universities and five laboratories in hopes of finding a solution for managing the data "that will be produced by the coming generation of supercomputers."

Cerf compared the future knowledge about the 21st century to the post-Roman era in Western Europe, in which few written records survived, Engineering and Technology reports.

And as an example, Cerf pointed to a book by presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, who used letters sent between Abraham Lincoln and his contemporaries to write her book "Team of Rivals: The Political Genius Of Abraham Lincoln."

"Such a book might not be possible to write about the people living today," said Cerf during the San Jose event, reports The Telegraph, "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'."

And while there are some who argue that important documents will be copied and saved, "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," Cerf said. "So failure to preserve them will cause us to lose our perspective."

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Images and documents saved online and on computers could be lost as technology changes, leaving future generations with few records of the 21st century, warns Vint Cerf, a Google vice-president often called a father of the Internet.
digital, storage, dark ages, lost
Saturday, 14 February 2015 10:45 AM
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