Watching digital lives disappearing down information blackhole

Cerf warns of need to save internet interaction for the sake of history

John Herlihy, Google showing Vint Cerf around the Google offices in Dublin.

John Herlihy, Google showing Vint Cerf around the Google offices in Dublin.


Whatever one’s view on selfies, it’s clear that taking such photos is a spur of the moment thing, rather than an effort to capture something for posterity. Increasingly though, it seems as though it’s not just pictures that have become disposable online but other web-based content as well.

These days we leave many of our mementos behind, partly because we increasingly live in the now but also because the technology used to access content is gradually becoming obsolete. We’ve already seeing this happen with floppy disks and cassettes doing little but gather dust.

So concerned is Vint Cerf, Google’s “internet evangelist”, that he warned this week that future historians will come to see the early 21st century as an “information black hole” unless action is taken to preserve the content of the internet for future generations.

Cerf, who is regarded as one of “the fathers of the internet” for the role he played in helping to design its basic architecture, told the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose, California, of the need for “digital vellum” to preserve old technology so that files can be recovered in the future.

“When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form, like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history,” he said.

“We don’t want our digital lives to fade away. If we want to preserve them, we need to make sure that the digital objects we create today can still be rendered far into the future,” he added.

Cerf said the issue isn’t just that digital information will be lost for good but also that its meaning will too.

In the case of selfies this may be no huge loss, but for those conscious of how history informs the present, the more of our information that is preserved the better.