This week my old colleague, Vint Cerf, warned at the American Association for the Advancement of Science of a ‘digital dark age’where all the images and documents we have been saving on computers will eventually be lost.
I have a great deal of respect for Vint who many claim has fathered the Internet, so he has a better claim to make this statement than most.
But I don’t agree that this is anything new or that it is as important as Vint makes out.
Vint has always been at the bleeding edge of technology, often proposing things such as the internet connections to Mars that are not going to come to pass for several generations (hopefully, though not before we get decent broadband in our street). However, his latest pronouncement is strange to say the least.
In a BBC interview with Pallab Ghosh he says “Our life, our memories, our most cherished family photographs increasingly exist as bits of information – on our hard drives or in ‘the cloud’. But as technology moves on, they risk being lost in the wake of an accelerating digital revolution.”
Well, what did he expect? Technology moves on.
I began my career as a historian and if I know one thing about historical documents it is that nothing lasts forever. My photographs from the 70s are fading fast because at that time developers competed on price and used cheaper and cheaper chemicals that have not lasted. Most of what one generation produces is destroyed by the following generations – give or take a few copies of Magna Carta and First Folios that will survive. Most things will be lost and frankly, the world will be a better place with a few less amusing cat and dog videos cluttering up the networks.
I am not entirely without sentiment. Years ago in the long, hot summer of 1977 I received a call from a colleague to say there was a major fire in the village where I lived and that many thatched cottages were burning. I rang my neighbour who said “your house is burnt down to the ground floor” and added “we got the dog out”. I drove home, certain that every possession that we had was gone. But as I drove up the high street I was passed by four men carrying what I recognised as my freezer and several other people with objects that I recognised. The village had formed a human chain and cleared the ground floors of houses in front of the fire. But the thing I was most relieved to see had survived, were 20 years of photograph albums.
What survives for the next generations is a combination of serendipity and the knowledge and wisdom that is passed down, interpreted and developed. That is where we need to focus our efforts. Not on saving the immense amount of information and dis-information that is digitally stored. On some estimates half of it is pornography and do we really want to pass that on?
Digital storage is no different from slates, clay tablets, papyrus, Latin text on vellum, printed books and all the other ways we have stored information over the years. It will be overtaken by new ways of communication. What matters is that knowledge and wisdom is not lost – a few less Facebook postings are not going to make a difference to the future of mankind.
Surely the challenge that we should be focusing on is not a portable tool of software that will read every disk, DVD or video clip from over the ages (as Vint is suggesting), but how we save and distil our knowledge. This is an issue that businesses often struggle with – particularly in the recession when so much ‘corporate memory’ was lost with redundancies.
Does this historical wisdom matter or is it physical evidence of memories that we need? Do you agree we need more of the former than the latter – or am I just showing my Luddite tendencies?