Google vice-president Vint Cerf warns that the 21st century may become a “digital Dark Age” as a result of the use of digital media for storing our records. He says hardware and software obsolescence will mean future generations will no longer be able to read our documents or view our photographs. Media outlets such as the BBC translate this to a more personal level, recommending that people print out their most precious photographs to avoid losing “digital memories”.
I disagree with this assertion on a number of levels, and not just because Mr Cerf is clearly trying to promote a new project of his. From the perspective of future historians in centuries to come, they will have far better records of our lives than of any previous generation. Some people may assume paper records from previous centuries give a complete picture of people’s lives, and think of how we have all those wonderful old photo prints from the last 100 years. Yet in fact, the records we have are rather patchy, and only represent a small proportion of all the documents that were created at the time. That is because the media on which they were written has degraded or even been lost in fire, flood or periods of civil disorder. We may think we have a lot of historical artefacts, but that doesn’t mean the way records were kept was especially good for preserving them for future generations, nor was that a consideration for people at the time. We don’t know what we haven’t got!
The big advantage of digital over old paper records is that perfect digital copies can me made easily. The advantage is twofold. Multiple copies can easily be kept in different locations to ensure that if one is lost, the records are intact. It also means that as one technology or storage medium becomes obsolete or starts to degrade, the data can be transferred to whatever the latest medium is. With the rapid growth in size of hard discs, for example, each new copy requires much less effort and is far quicker to make, even with increasing amounts of data to copy. The latest PC hard drives can hold millions of floppy discs’ worth of data, and a blu-ray can hold 100 times as much as a CD. So there is no need to find increasing amounts of physical space to hold archives.
Making backups of digital data can really pay off. Just last month, a severe fire destroyed the offices of my local district council, taking its servers with it. In a matter of days, their website was back online, soon joined by the full archive of planning applications and all the comments on them, restored from an off-site backup. The only items missing were applications and comments that reached them the previous day, and so had not been entered into the system: perhaps bits of paper sitting on someone’s desk, now burnt to a cinder. Not only was this a heroic effort by the council, but it also showed the advantage of having everything digitised. Had the records all been on paper, they may well have been all up in smoke. I don’t know if councils used to keep copies of all their planning applications in a separate location in the pre-computer age, but even if they did, it could have been on microfilm and would not have been very accessible to the public, or council staff for that matter. The online planning database contains records going back decades, which have been scanned in. I see no reason why they can’t be transferred to new systems in the future and still be available in centuries to come.
While large organisations tend to take the security of their data seriously, individuals can be more haphazard when it comes to preserving their digital memories. Last summer, it was reported that Olympic snowboarder Jenny Jones, who won a bronze medal at the Sochi games, had appealed for the return of her stolen laptop. It contained two years’ worth of her photographs, including those from the Winter Olympics. While the theft of any property is always disgraceful, I was surprised that anyone would apparently have only one copy of such important photographs, especially as it was months after the event, let alone keep that one copy on something as stealable as a laptop. Theft of laptops aside, the biggest risk with any PC is disc failure, which can instantly make all files inaccessible. You can never make too many backups. Keep copies on external hard discs, DVD-Rs, USB drives, upload to cloud storage. Some people may by chance be saved from total loss of their files by having uploaded them to share on sites such as Facebook, although these will rarely store the full resolution version of the original photograph, and should not be relied on as they could disappear at any time. Plenty of photo sharing and social network sites have closed without warning, so everyone should still keep their own copies of their photos and videos.
To go back to Vint Cerf’s original point, since when has being a historian or archaeologist been easy? He is worried that future software may not be able to read a Microsoft Word ’97 document. Yet if it was possible to decipher the hieroglyphics on the Rosetta Stone, I’m sure the future digital archaeologists will be able to work out Bill Gates’s most esoteric file formats.
Digital archives will mean historians of the future will have a wealth of information about us, and the ease of shifting to new media as they are invented will protect our records from loss due to damage, fire or theft. With everyone a potential published writer online, and everyone a potential photojournalist with a smartphone in their pocket, our period of history will be the best documented ever – probably as far from a Dark Age as there has ever been.