Web pioneer Vint Cerf has warned of a “digital dark age” that would result if decades of data becomes lost or unreadable. By Matthew Woollard.
“The Internet is forever.” So goes a saying regarding the impossibility of removing material — such as stolen photographs — permanently from the Web. Yet, paradoxically, the vast and growing digital sphere faces enormous losses. Google has been criticised for failing to ensure access to its archive of Usenet newsgroup postings that stretch back to the early 1980s. And now Web pioneer Vint Cerf has warned of a “digital dark age” that would result if decades of data — e-mails, photographs, website postings — becomes lost or unreadable.
Millions of paper records more than 500 years old exist today. But your entire family photo collection could be lost forever with just a single hard drive failure. Stone tablets, parchment, paper, printed photographs have all lasted through the centuries. But some of our data may not. What do we do about preserving the digital deluge?
Technical solutions already exist, but they’re not well known and relatively expensive. How much are we prepared to pay to ensure that digital stuff today is usable in the future? Because if there’s cost involved, inevitably we have to think about what has value that makes it worth keeping.
Most born-digital material is, with the right resources, recoverable. However, the chances of born-digital material being usable in, say, 100 years is considerably improved by actively taking steps to ensure that it will — just as medieval scribes made similar decisions in centuries past. Effective digital preservation relies, to some extent, on the activities of the creator as well as the archivist. Today those decisions include providing context, using standard and open file formats, organising material sensibly and making provision for rights issues to avoid the problem of orphan works.