Vint Cerf: Dark Ages of Digital Media Await

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Vint Cerf is widely considered one of the “founders of the Internet,” so when he makes a pronouncement about the online world, people tend to listen. And right now, he’s claiming we’re at risk of losing several decades’ worth of documents and images.

At last week’s meeting in San Jose of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Cerf suggested that the inevitable obsolescence of hardware and software puts years’ worth of data at risk.

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“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,” he told the BBC during the event. “And 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.” Anybody who’s ever wanted to retrieve a document stored on a 3.5-inch floppy disk knows that feeling.

His solution: Preserve every piece of hardware and software so that all data is always readable. But that’s much easier said than done, considering the lengths of time involved—it’s hard to tell whether any institution capable of storing hardware and software will last years or decades, much less centuries.

Vint Cerf isn’t shy about sharing his opinions about the evolution of online life, regularly opining on everything from privacy to why SDN would have been a better model for constructing the foundation of the Internet. If he wants those opinions to be read by historians, though, it sounds like he should commit as many of them as possible to paper.

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