Google VP Vint Cerf Warns Of Looming ‘Digital Dark Age’

We often talk about the importance of backing up data and keeping multiple backups, preferably in different locations -- an offsite archive is insurance against floods, fires, earthquakes, and other unfortunate incidents. That's great for short-term situations, but in the long run, does having all these backups really matter? Vint Cerf, considered the father of the Internet and currently serving as VP of Google, warns of what he calls the "digital Dark Age."

Cue the ominous music foreboding something bad about to happen. This digital Dark Age he speaks of is something he sees affecting future generations as today's hardware and software enters into obsolescence. It's a topic he recently discussed at a science conference in San Jose and is one that he's truly worried about.

"I worry a great deal about that," Cerf told BBC's science correspondent, Pallab Ghosh. "You and I are experiencing things like this. Old formats of documents that we've created or presentations may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backwards compatibility is not always guaranteed."

Old Computer

Cerf points out that over time, we end up accumulating mountains of digital data, but eventually forget what it is, with no way to access it.

I'm not as worried about a digital Dark Age as Cerf is, though I've see his point played out on a smaller scale in my own home. I have 3.5-inch disks containing pictures and, well, I can't even say what else might be on them. If I really wanted to, I could still access them by picking up a floppy drive and finding a motherboard that supports it, though as time goes on, that option becomes more difficult.

What Cerf is talking about is that very sort of thing, but on a much larger scale and a longer time frame.

"The solution is to take an X-ray snapshot of the content and the application and the operating system together, with a description of the machine that it runs on, and preserve that for long periods of time. And that digital snapshot will recreate the past in the future," Cerf says.

Even that has downsides. A company would need to provide the service, and it's rare for a firm to stick around for hundreds of years -- just ask Radio Shack. Nevertheless, it's something that's interesting to think about.