Last week the “father of the Internet” (no, not Al Gore), Vint Cerf, sounded an alarm about the preservation of digital information, specifically our personal writings and photographic memories, but also government records. His concern is not the disappearance of the actual digital files, but rather the presence of a software program designed to read, render and display the digital file.
Said Cerf, “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.”
I understand what he means. When I started using a computer the text files were plain text stored on 5 ¼” inch floppies (which were really floppy; soft and bendable). Images were bitmaps, large and clunky. Then we moved to Rich Text Format (RTF) documents and images that were in the Joint Photographic Experts Group (JPEG) format and stored on 3 ½ inch disks. I started using a program to write my text documents in the late 1990’s, but that program disappeared and I had to try and convert those files to something like Microsoft Word. Then I began storing files on ZIP drive disks (remember those?) and using programs that have since gone the way of the Dodo. Then I moved to CD’s for file storage, then Flash or Thumb drives and now external hard drives and the cloud.
Most of my documents today are either plain text, basic RTF, or PDF and almost all of my images are JPEG’s, though I have some of my more important images in a Tagged Image File Format (TIFF) as well for quality. I have redundant external hard drive backups as well as cloud-based storage of documents and images, but Cerf may be right when he says, “If there are photos you really care about, print them out.”
After all, it’s not that we have the digital files, it’s will we always have programs to interact with or display them. It would be a shame, both personally and culturally, for us to enter a “Digital Dark Ages”, as Cerf puts it in this article.
“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.” – Vint Cerf