How to avoid the coming ‘dark age’ for digital records

How to avoid the coming ‘dark age’ for digital records

A leading light of the Internet is worried that the time is rapidly approaching when email, photos, documents and other digital relics may be lost to history because the tools needed to view them are becoming obsolete.

Vint Cerf, a Google vice president who is credited with nursing Internet development from its beginnings as a defense research project, said we risk entering a “dark age,” when digital objects could become lost because software needed to access them no longer exists.

In a recent talk at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose, Cerf called for the development of “digital vellum,” a way to maintain support for technology that could open original files regardless of their age.

“We don’t want our digital lives to fade away,” Cerf told the conference. “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.”

The cost of not addressing the issue would be painful, he warned. “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.”

Cerf is backing a plan to take an X-ray snapshot of the content, the application and operating system, together with a description of the machine that it runs on and store the information in the cloud in perpetuity.

That snapshot “will recreate the past in the future,” he said, by preserving both the data and technical specs necessary for future users to access the data and recreate the image.

"The key here is when you move those bits from one place to another, that you still know how to unpack them to correctly interpret the different parts. That is all achievable if we standardize the descriptions,” Cerf said at the conference.

A version of Cerf’s digital vellum has been tried at Carnegie Mellon University by Mahadev Satyanarayanan, a professor of computer science, with the support of IBM Corp.

The system, called Open Library of Images for Virtualized Execution or OLIVE, aims to preserve digital information as executable content, by "freezing" and reproducing the execution state that generates the information, according to a report on NewsFactor.

“An increasing fraction of the world’s intellectual output is in the form of executable content,” according to a description of the project, and that includes simulation models, tutoring systems, expert systems and data visualization tools.

Using OLIVE, researchers have already archived the Mystery House, the original 1982 graphic adventure game for the Apple II, an early version of WordPerfect and Doom, the original 1993 first person shooter game.

The Library of Congress has its own solution for long-term preservation of its collection.

The LOC recently recommended formats for long-term preservation of a range of works, including textual documents, musical compositions, still images, audio, moving images, software and electronic gaming as well as datasets and databases.

“The Library’s mission is not simply to collect the extraordinary and diverse creative content of the American people and from around the world, but to make sure the collections are available and accessible for many generations to come," said Roberta Shaffer, association librarian for Library Services.

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