A Warehouse Fire of Digital Memories

A top Google executive believes that today's electronic personal records, photos, and even tweets will all be lost to defunct software, resulting in a "forgotten century."

Kin Cheung/AP

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.”

Many people are already familiar with this quandary. It wasn't so long ago that bright yellow floppy disks preserved term papers or 8-tracks the latest hits, now inaccessible to the average person. Indeed, many people no longer have computers with DVD or CD drives; storage technology is evolving much faster than anyone could have anticipated. But the files themselves, .jpgs, .pdfs, or .docs, rely on software that is constantly updated and improved. If software companies choose not to support these file types, how will people access their own information? How will future generations?

As The Guardian reported, Cerf has called for the creation of a “digital vellum” to ensure old files will always be recoverable. "There are not a lot of people working on these kinds of projects," said Jacob Silverman, the author of the forthcoming book on digital culture Terms of Service. "They're not very commercial questions. And there are not many business incentives for programmers to think about these things."

As Cerf points out, there are actually some disincentives to developing the kind of systems that could mimic old software. One example is the cost of buying the rights from companies that close or stop supporting updates for certain products. "The rights of preservation might need to be incorporated into our thinking about things like copyright and patents and licensing," he said.

Earlier this week, Silverman noted, Facebook rolled out a feature that gives its users the option of deleting their accounts upon their death or designating someone to take control of his or her account.

"There's an irony there," he said. "There's that kind of forward looking. But no one is asking how you will access your photos in five years? That's a way more pertinent question. What's going to happen to our personal documents? What's going to happen to our medical records and court documents?"