Vinton Cerf, often called “the father of the Internet,” is giving a dire warning to everyone who uses the internet, print ALL of you pictures and data, or lose them forever. Cerf warned that images and documents we store on computers may disappear from history as the ongoing digital revolution makes older hardware and software obsolete.Cerf is the chief Internet evangelist at Google, and he spoke this week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Rather than a world where longevity is a given, Cerf fears a “digital dark age” in which the rapid evolution of technology quickly makes storage formats obsolete thanks to a phenomenon he calls “bit rot.”
“In our zeal to get excited about digitizing, we digitize photographs thinking it’s going to make them last longer, and we might turn out to be wrong,” he said.
Since so much data is now kept in digital format, another problem will be with future generations that struggle to understand our society. Technology is advancing so quickly that old files will be inaccessible.
“If we don’t find a solution our 21st Century will be an information black hole”, Cerf explained. “Future generations will wonder about us but they will have very great difficulty knowing about us.
I can see what he means. Do you remember floppy disks? There must be all sorts of stuff on floppy disks which no-one can access, because nobody has floppy disk drives any more. Or hardly anybody.
These days I use memory sticks. But I have no idea how long they last. I wouldn’t be surprised if they gradually degrade, and after 10 years they’re just full of mush.
I store quite a lot of stuff on the web, like here on WordPress. But what happens if someone buys up WordPress – and deletes everything. It could happen…
I learned to program computers in the early 1970s. And I’ve been programming ever since. And over the past 40 years, it’s seemed to me that computers have just got more and more complicated, while becoming smaller and smaller. And while they’re still called “computers” computing – writing programs – is about the last thing anyone seems to do with them. Everyone’s using applications of one sort or other, like web browsers or text editors or synthesizers or whatever.
Back in the 1970s, the first microcomputers were very much computing oriented. When they fired up, there’d be a prompt on the screen (which was black back then with white or green letters), and if you typed “7*8” on it, it would come back and write “56”. And you could instantly write a little Basic program with numbered lines. Those microcomputers encouraged you to program.
Not any more. I haven’t seen Basic for years. On IBM PCs it was gradually moved into the background, and you had to start Basic.com. Now I think that maybe you can’t even do that.
These days I program in Java using NetBeans. NetBeans is an application which allows you to write Java programs. It’s a whole development environment. And it’s got so many features that I have no idea what most of them are. The same is true of Java. Back in the 1970s, a Basic language manual would be a slim volume you could read in an afternoon. But Java now comes with manuals as thick as telephone books (Do you remember telephone books?). And I have no idea of its true capacity. I just work with a limited instruction set that I know how to use.
It’s not just that computers have become more complicated. So has everything else. Take telephones. They used to to automatically switch on when you lifted the handset. The one I’ve got now has got about 20 buttons on the front. And it’s anybody’s guess what they all do.
Or wristwatches. My first wrist watch had two hands on it that went round in circles. My current digital watch has got an alarm, a stopwatch, and maybe even a calculator. And I’ve long since lost the manual.
Even my electric oven is programmable. But I never try. The manual got lost a long time ago.
I can imagine a day when I step into a shower one morning, and am confronted with a 20-button control panel. And I’ll step back out, and perform my ablutions over a wash basin instead (assuming the wash basin hasn’t got a control panel too), rather than try to figure out how to use the shower controller.
I think we aren’t dying of “bit rot”, so much as over-complication. Everything will just become too complicated to use. It will be impossible to wash, shower, cook, tell the time, make phone calls, watch TV, drive a car, or use any computer of any sort. Because they will have all become unfathomably complex.
And I will live with a hunting knife off tins of corned beef washed down with rainwater, and take a bath in the nearest river every 6 months or so.