How do we preserve information in the digital age?

Portion of a vellum leaf from a liturgical manuscript (Photo: Provenance Online Project)

Portion of a vellum leaf from a liturgical manuscript (Photo: Provenance Online Project)

Vint Cerf is in search of what he calls “digital vellum” — a method to read digital data for centuries. Cerf, Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist and early Internet pioneer, is concerned that, unlike vellum manuscripts of the Middle Ages, digital data will not be readable for long.Why? Because as technology evolves, technology also goes obsolete, and if the operating systems of the future forget old tech and cannot interpret a .ppt file or a .mp3, our digital history may be impossible to access.

“You produce bits every day,” Cerf says in a talk at TEDxRoma. “You produce them using electronic mail; you produce them with Skype communications; you produce them with tweets; you produce them with videos on YouTube … We can hang on to bits,” he says, “but we don’t necessarily have the ability to hold on to what they mean, unless we can find a way to preserve the software and execute it so that it can interpret the bits for us.”

Cerf’s proposed solution? “Bags of bits” — data (whether it be a PowerPoint presentation, a video file, an email, a game, etc.) paired with all the things needed to interpret it (software, operating system, description of the physical machine on which the software and operating system originally ran). This idea is far from perfect, Cerf admits, but he is determined to push for something lasting, and urges us all to join in his quest.

To learn more, watch Cerf’s entire talk below:

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