Humanity’s first steps into the digital world could be lost to future historians, Vint Cerf told the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose, California, warning that we faced a “forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century” through what he called “bit rot”, where old computer files become useless junk.
“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,” he said.
“We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them, we need to make sure that the digital objects we create today can still be rendered far into the future,” he added.
The warning highlights an irony at the heart of modern technology, where music, photos, letters and other documents are digitised in the hope of ensuring their long-term survival. But while researchers are making progress in storing digital files for centuries, the programs and hardware needed to make sense of the files are continually falling out of use.
“We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realising it. We digitise 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 artefacts that we digitised,” Cerf told the Guardian. “If there are photos you really care about, print them out.”
Ancient civilisations suffered no such problems, because histories written in cuneiform on baked clay tablets, or rolled papyrus scrolls, needed only eyes to read them. To study today’s culture, future scholars would be faced with PDFs, Word documents, and hundreds of other file types that can only be interpreted with dedicated software and sometimes hardware too.
The problem is already here. In the 1980s, it was routine to save documents on floppy disks, upload Jet Set Willy from cassette to the ZX spectrum, slaughter aliens with a Quickfire II joystick, and have Atari games cartridges in the attic. Even if the disks and cassettes are in good condition, the equipment needed to run them is mostly found only in museums.
The rise of gaming has its own place in the story of digital culture, but Cerf warns that important political and historical documents will also be lost to bit rot. In 2005, American historian Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote Team of Rivals: the Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, describing how Lincoln hired those who ran against him for presidency. She went to libraries around the US, found the physical letters of the people involved, and reconstructed their conversations. “In today’s world those letters would be emails and the chances of finding them will be vanishingly small 100 years from now,” said Cerf. (Source)