Vint Cerf, one of the founding fathers of the modern internet, has warned of a ‘digital Dark Age’ in which our data will not be accessible for generations to come.
Cerf, a Google executive and the man who figured out the whole TCP/IP thing, claims that the ever-evolving nature of hardware and software could render our most treasured digital memories obsolete.
“Old formats of documents that we’ve created or presentations may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backwards compatibility is not always guaranteed,” Cerf said in an interview with the BBC.
The Google exec believes he has the answer to humanity's impending doom, which is for us to save cloud-based records of not only the data, but of the software and hardware on which it resides.
"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," he said.
While Cerf’s warning may sound a touch melodramatic at first, one only has to think back to the 8-inch floppy disk or Betamax to understand just how quickly technology becomes inaccessible and obsolete.
As Richard Holway of TechMarketView points out, NASA suffered its own digital Dark Age. Magnetic tapes from the 1976 Viking Mars landing were unprocessed for over a decade. When NASA finally got round to processing the data, it was in an unknown format and the original programmers had either left NASA or passed away.
Cerf believes that The OLIVE Project, led by Mahadev Satyanarayanan at Carnegie Mellon University, forms the basis for a solution. The research project focuses on the long-term preservation of content as well as archiving the hardware and software required for interpretation.
It’s early days, but Vint Cerf could well have tapped into the next frontier for cloud-based service providers - context aware archiving.