Two weeks ago, a seven-alarm blaze at a storage warehouse smogged up the Brooklyn ether (and confettied parts of the East River) with "decades’ worth of charred medical records, court transcripts, lawyers’ letters, sonograms, bank checks, and more." Huge swaths of Brooklyn's legal history literally fueled the fire, leaving one Clerk's Office representative to lament of the stacks of data lost: "They're priceless."
If there's any solace to be had from such a disaster, aside from its lack of fatalities, is its seeming outdatedness. The move to digitize vital files as well as electronically store keepsakes, letters, and photos should, in theory, safeguard future generations from the agony of losing data to a fire or flood. But what happens when we outgrow our own technology?
Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science this week, Google Vice President Vint Cerf warned of a “forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century” that awaits us when "bit rot" takes hold and our digital material gets lapped by the new hardware and software racing around it.
“We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole," he said to The Guardian. “We digitize things because we think we will preserve them, but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps, those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse, than the artifacts that we digitized. If there are photos you really care about, print them out.”