‘Bit rot,’ ‘temporary,’ ‘transient,’ are all terms one is likely hear when discussion begins on the future of data storage. The general consensus by those that matter, is that just as our technology advances, just as quickly technology we’ve depended on will become obsolete. Who are those that matter? A now google VP, Vince Cerf is often regarded as the ‘Father of the Internet.’
There is a growing fear that much of the 21st Century may be lost in the winter of what he and others describe as the ‘digital dark ages.’ These aren’t comments made in passing at casual dinners or to scare University Freshmen, but in major addresses to the academics and population of those who may be able to address the issue and find solutions.
At the American Association for the Advancement of Science, this very topic was discussed. The feeling is that many of our records, photographs included, may be lost in the wake of an accelerating digital revolution. While backwards compatibility is still around for many devices and mediums, the feeling is that won’t last forever, nor for very long, so there’s no guarantee that any digital file you currently have will be able to be accessed years down the road, much less half or a full century away.
We think about digitizing 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 artifacts that we digitized.
Cerf’s ideas for the time being are two; one that we preserve every piece of software and hardware like in a museum, but in digital, in cloud servers, which would ensure they will be available for generations.
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. And that digital snapshot will recreate the past in the future.
There is some concern too, though, that with continual moving around of files they will constantly degrade to the point of being unrecognizable from the original. Images are particularly positioned to suffer from this. So his next suggestion is for us to preserve our treasured memories in a hard copy type – in print.
Sure, paper tends to degrade also, but given that with maintenance we still have paper records from centuries ago, it’s still promising. Once again we are moving to the past to navigate the future.
On a personal note, I always suggest that we print our images to promote the craft and feel some tangible form of our work, but it appears there are more merits to that than previously perceived.