In order to secure our future, we must preserve our past
What is Digital Preservation?
Our culture and society has been enriched by the creation and proliferation of the Internet. Information has become increasingly more accessible and has enabled so many of us to become active creators rather than passive consumers of content. With that, we’re experiencing an explosive growth of digital data, with 2.5 quintillion bytes of data created every day and that data needs a place to live.
Not only does our data need a place to live, but it needs a place to survive into the future. What happens if years from now, we are no longer able to access our photos, documents, music — essentially all the records of our lives? We will not only be forgotten, but we’ll be thrusting the future into a ‘digital dark age’, as Vint Cerf calls it.
“More and more of our lives are bound to the ones and zeroes of bits residing on a cloud server, or mobile device. Those bits in turn are mediated by the software and hardware implements we use every day. The bitstreams are unintelligible, however, without the suitable data formats, computer applications, operating systems, and hardware environments to interpret them for us. As those systems are modified or replaced over time, we inevitably lose our ability to access the content. The resulting technological obsolescence can leave us trapped in a “digital dark age”, in a culture that has lost its collective memory.”
Whereas with analog objects, such as books, the content is directly bound to the media itself (words on paper, for example), so preserving that data relies on preserving the books themselves. Throughout history, there have been numerous examples of tragic losses, such the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, one of the most significant libraries in the world, and its destruction has become a “symbol of the irretrievable loss of public knowledge.”
With a digital object (such as a .doc or .jpg file), the content is dependent on several externalities, such as the hardware (computer or tablet), the operating system, and the software or app on which the file was created (MS Word, Photoshop, etc). In order to preserve a digital object, one must take a ‘snapshot’ of that entire environment in order to be able to not only access but translate those bits of 0’s and 1’s into a human readable form.
The problem we face is that we don’t know if that form is permanent enough to preserve the bits and allow us to access them in the future. Media deterioration (the decay of the bits themselves) and technological obsolescence (the hardware and software are inaccessible) might render our bits, and by extension, our existence, unrecognizable. “In just 50 years from
now the human record of the early 21st century may be unreadable.” That is worrisome. If we loose access to our past, history itself is in danger of being re-written.
As Cerf has said: “The ability of a culture to survive into the future depends on the richness and acuity of its collective sense of history.”
At the Internet Society, we believe that the Internet is for everyone and we support efforts to promote the Internet as a positive tool to benefit all people throughout the world. Helping to preserve our digital bits is a natural fit for ISOC, in order to ensure that the information we create now will be accessible to future generations and that the Internet continues to be a beneficial tool for our global society.
Through our ISOC-NY chapter, we are launching a Digital Preservation Campaign. It is fitting that we have Vint Cerf, a founding father of the Internet as well as the Internet Society, speak about Digital Preservation at two important upcoming events:
Physical Media Deterioration
Often called “bit rot” or “bit decay”, involves the breakdown of the bits of data themselves on physical media materials. Digital information can easily be deleted, written over or corrupted.
The hardware and software required to access and interpret the bits of data is no longer available.
Public Policy Challenges
- Exclusive rights
- Relevant exceptions and limitations
- Licensing and contracts
- Patent and trademark laws
- Bankruptcy laws
- Privacy and data protection
- Content liability