We live in one of the most highly documented eras in history. People take pictures of their food and share it on social media. People the world over are photographed more often than at any time since the technology was invented. Most people carry a device that contains at least two cameras and are able to communicate by video wherever they are – something our ancestors would have considered to be so futuristic that it’d be impossible.
In just a few short years, the ability to transmit records of our existence has gone from a mammoth pursuit to a matter of a few mouse clicks. We may think this all adds up to our era as being one of the most notable, but one of the pioneers of web technology, Vint Cerf, fears that current methods of storing information are vulnerable in comparison to what previous civilizations used.
Cerf’s concerns lay in the rapid progression of technology. File formats that were common just a decade ago have become deprecated in favor of newer, more efficient formats. Civilizations like Rome used tablets and carvings to document their civilization, and these have withstood the ages. Much of the news from the 1800s onward was recorded on cheaper and cheaper paper, and its duration now relies on moving to digital forms. Various projects like Google Books have aimed at bringing older media into the future, and newspaper archival projects have seen some success. But overall, the cost of digitizing older documents is large, even when automated. This is among Cerf’s chief concerns, saying in a recent column:
These thoughts immediately raise the question of financial support for such work. In the past, there were patrons and the religious orders of the Catholic Church as well as the centers of Islamic science and learning that underwrote the cost of such preservation. It seems inescapable that our society will need to find its own formula for underwriting the cost of preserving knowledge in media that will have some permanence. That many of the digital objects to be preserved will require executable software for their rendering is also inescapable. Unless we face this challenge in a direct way, the truly impressive knowledge we have collectively produced in the past 100 years or so may simply evaporate with time.
Scientists have grappled with the problem of long-term transmittal of information for decades. The 1977 Voyager Golden Record presents one of the earliest efforts, in which Carl Sagan and his colleagues sent images and sounds of the human race into space on a record composed of materials that had a half-life of over 4 billion years. The record includes instructions to build a phonograph in binary form. However, this project was intended to transmit just a tiny fragment of human thought, and had a limited input convened by a panel at NASA.
Another similar project is KEO, which has been delayed for over a decade, which allows anyone on Earth to transmit text images to humanity 50,000 years from now. KEO uses glass DVDs and, similar to the Voyager record, it provides instructions on how to read the media.
Preserving the contents of human thought as a whole is not a small task, and it is not simply a matter of converting old media to mediums. Relying purely on magnetic storage could present a problem in the event of a series of electromagnetic pulses from some spatial source. Cerf seems to suggest that humanity requires an effort to protect data from these and other potential threats throughout future millenia, or else we will be forgotten.
Much of the software used to create today’s media is proprietary in nature, and thus the future of its ability to be read is uncertain. Etching the mammoth amount of data onto some form of hardcopy seems out, since it would require an increasing amount of space as time goes on.
One group of researchers believes that DNA might be the answer. DNA is able to store large amounts of data, and through a process, the researchers have been able to achieve error-free retrieval in tests. Such a process would obviously be prohibitively expensive at present, but it could be that in the near future this or something like it could become the normal method of long-term storage. It is believed that the DNA method can preserve data for millions of years, whereas magnetic disks can degrade after just decades, requiring continual movement to new storage media.
If future generations really are to learn from the digital age, something will have to be done to preserve data in the long-long-long term sense. Cerf’s fears may seem unfounded to some, but when much of the money and time spent on technology are dedicated to short-lived pursuits, thinking in terms of millenia becomes all the more important.
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