Future historians will see the early 21st century as “an information black hole” unless “digital vellum” is introduced to preserve the content of the internet for millennia to come, internet pioneer Vint Cerf has warned.
Mr Cerf, who is recognised as one of "the fathers of the internet," told the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting that the issue was not that the digital bits will disappear — they can in principle be replicated and preserved indefinitely in new storage media — but that their meaning will be lost.
Preserving it will involve saving not only data but also full details of hardware on which programs run, together with applications software and operating systems.
"If we want people in the future to be able to recreate what we are doing now, we are going to have to build the concept of preservation into the internet," said Mr Cerf, a co-designer of the internet's basic architecture. Mr Cerf is now a Google vice-president, working as the tech group's "internet evangelist".
As a candidate for digital vellum, he advocates a system called Olive under development at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, in collaboration with IBM Research.
Olive (an acronym for Open Library of Images for Virtualised Execution) takes digital snapshots that record not only the full information content — text, graphics, sound, video, scientific data, games or anything else — but also technical details of the computers for which they were designed.
Then, in a technologically advanced future, people will be able to have the same experience by running the digital snapshots on a virtual machine.
The files required to store these digital snapshots for ever will be huge but that will not be a fundamental problem, according to Mr Cerf. “Data storage is getting so cheap that I don’t worry about that,” he said. “I worry about how to find something in it.”
An initiative to make it easier to find and track content on the internet involves technology called Information-Centric Networking or ICN. All information would be addressed and routed by the name of its content rather than, as today, by its location.
Two leading figures in the ICN movement, David Oran of Cisco and Glenn Edens of Xerox's Parc research centre, told the AAAS meeting that an intensive cross-company development effort by the information technology industry was making good progress.
“The ICN routing system will help you find the information you want,” Mr Cerf commented.
But Mr Oran pointed out a “flip side” of the coming ability to track, store and access all data. “There is an expectation within the [IT]community that with today’s information systems you can make information disappear — break it up with a digital hammer,” he said. “But in future it may be impossible ever to destroy things.”