Are we Part of a “Digital Dark Age?”

Scott Calonico

In a world where we all have ready access to smartphones and Internet connections, it’s hard to imagine a time where we’ve ever had information and personal data so close at hand.

All one needs to do is reach into a pocket, and recent photos are instantly available; Facebook provides a living diary of all we do (or at least all that we share!), and cloud-based storage makes it easy to access important documents from wherever we happen to be.

Despite all of this, Vint Cerf, a Google Vice President and “father of the Internet,” according to a report on The BBC, thinks that we are entering a “digital dark age,” and that technology obsolescence will eventually lead to us having “little or no record of the 21st century.”

The Past

On the face of it, this all seems rather hard to believe. After all, thanks to cloud storage, we now have copies of data on servers all over the world. How is all that going to one day be lost?

Well, a good parallel to draw here is to think of data from the early 1990s. These were the days of IBM-compatible PCs with 5.25-inch floppy disk drives, and 10 or 20 MB hard drives for those lucky enough to afford them.

Where’s all the data from back then gone? If you were working with computers in the 80s and 90s, presumably you have an archive of all your old WordPerfect 5.1 documents and Lotus 1-2-3 spread sheets? No? We didn’t think so!

It’s also not as if cloud services stay around forever either. Do you remember Apple’s Mobile.Me? How about Symantec’s BackUp service? These are examples of services from very big names being closed down, and there will inevitably be more in the future.

Forward Planning

What all this highlights is that those who want to preserve their digital memories have to take personal responsibility for doing so. Whatever you are using right now to store your data won’t be around forever.

What Vint Cerf wishes to do is to create a “digital museum” on the Internet, so that people can always find a way to open old files made inaccessible by hardware and software obsolescence. Right now, thanks to emulation, it’s possible to boot up virtual copies of old systems going right back through the history of home computing. What Cerf is suggesting runs along this essential principle, albeit on a rather more ambitious scale.

Cerf’s concept of “digital vellum” is still in its early stages, but it’s in everyone’s interest to support it. The alternative is to go out and buy some print cartridges, photo albums and good quality paper.

In such a technological age, it’s hard to believe that our ancestors may find it harder to access family memories than we do now, using dusty boxes and crinkled photographs.