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Digital Dark Ages: Bring Out Your Dead...Data

Google boss warns of 'forgotten century' with email and photos at risk

Vint Cerf: ‘We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole.’

When I read the headlines on this announcement I immediately thought 'sensationalism'. Living in a time where every scrap of information is available with a few keystrokes I had forgotten that only a few short decades ago Encyclopedia Britannica was king of knowledge. But upon reading Vint Cerf's arguments I am inclined to agree with him and ignore the sensationalist perspective. As a web designer, computer scientist, and all around geek I can't tell you how many pictures, how much web content, how many programs I have simply erased because I needed the space or simply didn't want it anymore. But according to Vint Cerf, one of the founding fathers of the Internet and Google VP, that attitude could be catastrophic.

The basic premise is this: all of our current media is disposable, leading to the inevitable loss of the data that documents our lives. Emails, photos, Facebook, tweets, Word documents, CAD Files, and everything we do now is at risk of being lost. In the future, technology may not be able to read this data, much in the way we are unable to read ancient, dead languages. Given that historians are constantly trying to assemble and figure out previous technology worked, it shouldn't come as a surprise that future historians may have to do the same. One could imagine a Computing Science historian diligently learning Visual Basic to figure out how an Excel document worked and what data it had in it. And why not, as a species we are obsessed with our past and our roles in it.

But aren't the important documents, pictures, programs, etc being backed up? Aren't they safe?

Yes, many are stored in waterproof, sealed bunkers but is that enough? This question lies at the heart of the issue because who is to say what is important? Yes, historically significant documents have been purposefully preserved but those were by people assuming fame and political power were most important. But consider how historians and archeologists understand the past: they collect as much data as possible, as many perspectives as possible, not just the most prolific. They use writings, pottery, day to day ledgers, and cast off wheels to paint a picture of how life truly was.

The danger of letting any one person, organization, or perspective determine what is important is it results in a myopic view of reality.  For example, relying on popular media such as radio, newspapers, and television programs would have us believe 1940s women simply kept house while their husbands were at war and not factory workers building and supplying provisions to soldiers overseas. Focusing solely on footage of the wars in Iraq crafts an impersonal story missing the true struggle that took place, a struggle often documented in unofficial places like journals or carved into stone walls. Viewing internet archival footage will tell you that Miley Cyrus riding naked on a wrecking ball was controversial but not how it affected one individual on a personal level.

Won't keeping all this "stuff" as Vint Cerf's suggests, all this digital information, be too much? Won't historians get bogged down in the ocean of breakfast photos, going to the bathroom tweets, and endless lines of computer code?

No one can say what the future holds or what future historians will find interesting or useful. But in the words of the great Sherlock Holmes, "Data! Data! Data! I can't make bricks without clay!" Let the future historians determine what is useful and what is not, it will be their jobs after all. 

My advice. Print off some of your pictures and write on the back what they were. Print off some recipes and tell what made them special. Print off your best computer program, tweets, and Facebook statuses. Burying it in a waterproof, sealed bunker is optional.

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