Blogs, tweets, pictures and videos, even official documents and emails are at risk of being lost forever because the programs needed to view them in are becoming defunct with every upgrade.
Vint Cerf, Google’s vice-president has warned that our first steps into the digital world could be lost forever into what is essentially a digital ‘black hole’.
“When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history,” Cerf told reporters.
“We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them, we need to make sure that the digital objects we create today can still be rendered far into the future,” he added.
Cerf in an address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose, California, warned of a “forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century” due to what he coined “bit rot”, where older computer files and programs become useless.
“We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realising it. We digitise things because we think we will preserve them, but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps, those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse, than the artefacts that we digitised,” Cerf told the Guardian. “If there are photos you really care about, print them out.”
His warning underpins the irony at the heart of our digital world, where precious moments, photos, letters and other documents are digitised in the hope of ensuring the long term survival.
Yet while progress is being made in storing digital files for centuries to come, the programs and software needed to make sense of the files is continually falling out of use.
Coupled with the issue of inventing new technology to copy and store such files is the issue of legal permissions. If technology or IT companies go out of business and stop supporting their products, they may sell the rights to their products making it a nightmare to try and obtain them later on.
“To do this properly, the rights of preservation might need to be incorporated into our thinking about things like copyright and patents and licensing. We’re talking about preserving them for hundreds to thousands of years,” said Cerf.