According to Internet experts, both high art and mundane cultural artifacts may be more like Snapchat conversations than cave paintings. Snapchat is a mobile app designed to present photos or videos that disappear after seconds; the oldest cave paintings have endured for tens of thousands of years.
Vint Cerf, often credited as the “father of the Internet” and now vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist for Google, has been warning for years that if we don’t do something, huge portions of our cultural, business, and political history could fall away as technology makes obsolete the applications and hardware we use to chronicle every sphere of our lives.
I’ve already lost big pieces of my personal history. You probably have too if you’re over the age of twenty. Many of the media on which I recorded my thoughts and words have become unreadable, including:
- Apple Writer documents (for the Apple IIe, from the early 1980s)
- IBM Displaywriter disks (dedicated word processing machine from the mid-1980s)
- WinWord 3.0 documents (Microsoft Word for Windows 3, early 1990s)
- CompuServe e-mail (from the late 1980s/early 1990s)
- AltaVista e-mail (from the early 1990s)
What could we do to prevent our Windows 10 documents from going the way of IBM Displaywriter docs? Cerf is talking about the concept of “digital vellum.” Actual vellum, calfskin parchment believed to have been in use since the sixth century B.C., turns out to have tremendous longevity. Digital vellum might have similar utility in combating what Cerf refers to as “bit rot.”
This gives me newfound respect for paper as a technology. While I’ve lost electronic copies of my early writings, I still have paper printouts. I also have letters my grandfather wrote during World War I—actual handwriting on actual sheets of paper. I don’t need a fancy retro machine to get a look at his thoughts. We can go back even further and see some of the original writings of William Shakespeare, which have lasted for centuries on paper.
It remains to be seen how our efforts to preserve and protect digital culture will fare. Perhaps DNA data storage will be the answer, as discussed in one of these On the Media stories. But given the complexities—political and social as well as technological—of these solutions, I’m not going to bet my future on them. Sure, I’ll release my next books electronically for the Kindle and other devices. I’ll also publish them the old-fashioned way, on paper, as a hedge against word rot.
Or maybe I should get me some calfskin parchment…
What treasures have you lost to obsolete technologies? Do you care if humanity’s works of art (and cat videos) evaporate into nothingness?