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Google Boss Warns of Lost Data Due to Defunct Storage Methods

Vint Cerf, the vice-president of Google, has warned that our current digital existence could be lost in the future because the programs needed to view them will become defunct.

Speaking at the annual American Association for the Advancement of Science, Cerf told how our initial steps into the land of digital could be lost to future historians. It’s what he calls “bit rot”, where data from the past just becomes useless and unreadable because the means to make sense of it no longer exist.

“When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history,” said Cerf.

There is the need to develop what Cerf calls “digital vellum”, which is the ability to preserve old hardware and software so that old files can be recovered and viewed regardless of their age. It’s a problem that we can see even today. Data in the past was often stored on floppy disks or onto game cartridges. The equipment that’s necessary to view this type of data is becoming increasingly rare, regardless of if format containing the storage is in good condition.

You may have transferred your music CDs, photos and documents onto your computer and into the digital world, thinking that this would ensure their longevity. While progress is being made in being able store the data for centuries, the tools needed to actually read this data are falling by the wayside.

Unless we take the steps to preserve the software and hardware, Cerf warns that the digital versions may in fact be worse than the physical copies. Ironically, he suggests that if there are photos you really care about then you’d better print them out.

While history from the past is stored on scrolls or clay tablets, our existence lives through PDF files, Excel spreadsheets and a vast collection of other, often obscure, file types.

Cerf admits that historians will try and ensure material that is considered important by our current standards, but he argues that we cannot truly know the own significance of our documents. It’s only until hundreds of years later, when historians are piecing together the past, where small notes and exchanges can take on greater meaning.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh have begun to take snapshots of hard drives while they run a variety of software. These snapshots are then uploaded to a computer that copies the one the software ran on; resulting in a system that can read what would otherwise be defunct files.

“To do this properly, the rights of preservation might need to be incorporated into our thinking about things like copyright and patents and licensing. We’re talking about preserving them for hundreds to thousands of years,” said Cerf.

One step in the right direction would be the continued adoption of open file formats – having just one program that can read a file is limiting. Giving anyone the ability to build software around a file format ensures that there are a wider selection of tools that can support and read our data in the future.


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