Our culture can probably survive some "bit rot" from the digital era

Are we in danger of losing a generations worth of data in the forms of pictures, writing and video? Writing for The Guardian, Ian Sample reports that Google executive Vint Cerf issues a dire warning… we’re storing information but throwing away the code needed to access it. And if this trend – which he calls “bit rot” – continues, we could eventually lose most of it.

Piles of digitised material – from blogs, tweets, pictures and videos, to official documents such as court rulings and emails – may be lost forever because the programs needed to view them will become defunct, Google’s vice-president has warned.

Humanity’s first steps into the digital world could be lost to future historians, Vint Cerf told the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose, California, warning that we faced a “forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century” through what he called “bit rot”, where old computer files become useless junk.

Cerf called for the development of “digital vellum” to preserve old software and hardware so that out-of-date files could be recovered no matter how old they are.

“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,” he said.

Dr. James Joyner noticed this article and wrote about it, but he doesn’t seem to be as worried as Cerf.

Cerf is, needless to say, much more versed in the vagaries of technology than I am. But I can’t offhand think of any widespread photo, video, or music file type that has become unviewable and can’t imagine them ever becoming unviewable. Even if my software or operating system were to go away, the files themselves would still be there.

It’s true that floppy discs are all but unreadable, Ditto ZipDrive and various other short-lived storage media. And even CD-ROMs, which were supposed to last forever, degrade in relatively short order. But most of us are backing stuff up on both hard drives—a terabyte is now commonplace and dirt cheap—and the cloud.

More problematic is the fact that various wildly popular sites and programs go out of business on a regular basis.

This caught my attention because it’s one of many aspect of the digital age which has worried me from time to time. We have now reached a stage where digital distribution of content is the norm, not the exception, and in many cases there are simply no physical copies of many published works in existence. The blog you are reading right now is not put out in magazine form. Newer, more boutique artists frequently release their music online for download without anyone mass producing a CD, tape or vinyl album. (Ask your parents what that means, kids.) Even some venerable news magazines and papers have gone strictly digital. People self publish books which are ready to download into your phone or tablet, but will never have a hard cover edition in a library.

The last example captures the irony which comes to my mind on this topic. People have worried about “backing up the data” ever since the term came into existence, and fretted over the fact that books will – over long centuries – crumble into dust. Having them stored electronically seemed like the magic bullet to cure that particular ill. But we still have original books from centuries back. And as long as there are a few copies around someplace, we clever scribes could create some more if we wanted to. But what happens to a computer file when nothing remains which can access it? It’s gone.

On the flip side of this – being fully aware of the two definitions of flip in play – we also live in the age of saturation without any sort of qualitative filters. Just about everyone can publish anything and many, many of them do. There was a time in the bad old days of the gatekeepers when a book or magazine would have to generate some really broad interest before anyone would invest the money and resources into releasing it widely. The same went for music and video. No doubt that left a lot of talented people from ever being “discovered” but it also kept a lot of absolute dreck from burying us. There are no such limits any more. We might lose a lot of material if the digital only publications eventually be came inaccessible, but we’d flush a lot of offal down the tubes in the process as well.

Still, reading these warning, we might want to make sure we keep on stocking up the national archives with paper copies of everything. It can’t hurt.