Internet co-inventor Cerf to speak on possibility of coming ‘digital dark age’



Vint Cerf thinks emails, photos, documents, spreadsheets, webpages, videos and practically every other form of digital artifact should be saved forever — except that’s currently impossible.

“Preservation of correspondence and preservation of our intellectual results may be of real value, especially to our descendents who either may need that information or may just be curious about it,” Cerf said. “If we don’t solve this problem, we will become increasingly invisible to future generations.”

Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google, will talk at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater on what he warns is a coming digital dark age where much of the digital artifacts people create will be lost to time. This problem exists for both digital relics of the last century, as well as the Facebook photos, text documents and GoPro videos produced every day.

Perhaps part of why Cerf feels so invested in solving this issue is because he is part of the reason it exists. For many, computers and smartphones are merely access points to the Internet, something Cerf and his colleagues are credited with creating and implementing in the 1970s and ’80s. This accomplishment, combined with his continued high-profile involvement in debates of Internet regulation and innovation, earned him the slightly inaccurate title of “Father of the Internet.” He said he prefers “co-inventor,” acknowledging the work of his many colleagues.

One part of the problem is how people store the data in question. It’s not uncommon to have a home video rewound so many times that the VHS tape is worn out. But even if the VHS, floppy disk, CD, or whatever media remains intact, one still requires the proper software to interpret the recorded content.

“If you take a 1997 PowerPoint file, and you try to read it with PowerPoint 2011, you may not actually succeed in correctly reading or interpreting it because they’ve changed formats,” Cerf said.

Even worse, Cerf said this problem will spread to currently ubiquitous devices like solid state drives and USB thumbdrives as technology further evolves beyond physical media. And even online storage solutions pose problems, considering how websites require constant upkeep and supervision. Industry, Cerf said, is so focused on how to store what humans are creating, that little thought has been given on how to preserve what they actually create.

“I defy you to find some digital content that is more than 20 years old,” Cerf said.

Moving toward a solution involves navigating complicated technological and political debates involving intellectual property and legal gray areas. If someone posts a photo to Instagram, how does that person preserve the file over which they no longer have control? Cerf also noted how it is impossible to store everything, which means choices will have to be made. Plain and simple, there are very few best practices for how to store the records and artifacts that reflect contemporary digital life.

In fact, Cerf’s best advice for preserving something like a photograph is to print a physical copy and file it away, and even that is not a perfect solution. For one, paper takes up much more space than a JPEG, and it’s not as if people can print software or other interactive media.

“There’s real work to be done here,” Cerf said. “Printing out a spreadsheet does not do you a lot of good.”

His work as Google’s chief Internet evangelist is dizzying in scope and size, but everything he does revolves around the objective of getting the entire world on the Internet. It’s a job he started four decades ago and also one without an end in sight.

“As the Executive Chairman [of Google] Eric Schmidt pointed out to me, I can’t retire because I’m only half done — we only have 3 billion people online and have another 4 billion to go,” Cerf said.

The solution to that problem, along with the solution to the digital dark age, remains elusive. But it doesn’t stop Cerf from approaching his work as a perennial optimist.

“I’m a technologist — I believe that problems are solvable,” he said. “Otherwise, I’d give up.”