• September 14, 2016

Disappearing Ink: Why Our Digital Records Could Vanish

We could be on the cusp of a digital dark age due to bit rot.

Leonardo da Vinci left 7,000 notebook pages of notes and drawings. But how accessible will our digital images and text be after two or three centuries—or even two or three decades? We could be on the cusp of a digital dark age.

Dangers to Digital

Vint Cerf, web pioneer and Google vice president, warns we are entering another dark age: a digital one driven by bit rot. Think of bit rot as the unplanned obsolescence of hardware and data files along with their associated applications. We’ve all experienced new versions of software that fail to recognize older file formats because of an absence of backward compatibility.

The digital dark age means a family photograph snapped in the early 2000s could be unreadable in a couple of decades. Notes, documents, correspondence, audio, and video content could vanish in the wake of accelerating digital innovation. Cerf posits that the entire digital record of the 21st century is at risk of being inaccessible to future generations.

Digital Breakdown

Hyperbole? Maybe not. Stockpiles of digital data face numerous threats. Consider that Steve Jobs biographer Walter Isaacson discovered it was impossible to retrieve emails Jobs had sent in the 1990s. In 2006 NASA admitted that the original video recordings of the first moon landing had been erased. The video was part of a cache of 200,000 tapes that the space agency had magnetically erased and reused to save money.

Nature also threatens: a powerful solar storm could wipe out data storage systems globally. A human-generated electromagnetic pulse could potentially do the same.

People often deem digital files immune to degradation. But while a book can survive for centuries under the right conditions, DVD or CD disk storage might survive just a couple of decades. A spinning hard drive might last only a few years. Thumb drives, mobile device storage, and digital files themselves can also decay and become corrupted over time.

Preserving Our Legacy

The solution? Cerf proposes a system he calls digital vellum, or the process of preserving every piece of software and hardware so that it never completely disappears. By taking an X-ray snapshot of data files, applications, and operating systems together—along with a description of the applicable computer technology—it’s possible to preserve digital content indefinitely.

There are other archiving strategies. The Digital Preservation Network (DPN) secures digital content from academic institutions by storing it on a distributed network of diverse geographic and technical storage environments. Content is periodically audited, maintained, and repaired to ensure consistency over time. As storage systems enter and leave the network, preserved content is redistributed.

The digital dark age can be averted by leveraging the same dynamic that threatens to bring it about: accelerating technological innovation. By building data preservation ecosystems, we can avert potentially catastrophic digital amnesia.

Like this story? Read about the comeback of magnetic tape.