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Vint Cerf Ponders the Longevity of Digital Media

November 15, 2016
Vint Cerf

If you are literate in the appropriate language, you can still read what’s written in the Lascaux caves, Sumerian cuneiform tables, ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics and many medieval manuscripts.

Meanwhile, their more recent successors—including photographs and modern books—are struggling to last more than a century before fading and disintegrating.

In a column for the October edition of Communications of the Association of Computing Machinery, Google Vice President and Internet Hall of Fame inductee Vint Cerf notes that modern popular forms of expression are showing signs of a shorter shelf life than their predecessors.

“As we move toward the present, the media of our expression seems to have decreasing longevity,” he wrote. “Of course, newer media have not been around as long as the older ones so their longevity has not been demonstrated but I think it is arguable that the more recent media do not have the resilience of stone or baked clay. Modern photographs may not last more than 150–200 years before they fade or disintegrate. Modern books, unless archival paper is used, may not last more than 100 years.”

For Cerf, it also raises the question of whether information accrued in the digital age will be sufficiently preserved and, if so, where the funding for such an endeavor will come from. 

In previous centuries, there were patrons and the religious orders of the Catholic Church as well as the centers of Islamic science and learning that underwrote the cost of such preservation, whether it was through copying onto parchment and vellum or frescoes. However, as he points out, no singular entity has stepped forward so far to fill either void.

“That many of the digital objects to be preserved will require executable software for their rendering is also inescapable,” he wrote. “Unless we face this challenge in a direct way, the truly impressive knowledge we have collectively produced in the past 100 years or so may simply evaporate with time.”

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