In an interview with BBC, Vint Cerf
(also known as a ‘father of the Internet’) says that he is “worried that all the images and documents we have been saving on computers will eventually be lost” thanks to what he describes as ‘the digital dark age’.
So what exactly is the digital dark age?
The digital dark age refers to the idea that all the data we create and store online now — our documents, presentations and even photographs or videos — will be ‘lost’ in the future. (Yes, even all the content stored on social media — which might be a good thing for some people.)
The reason for this inability to access data is because technology will have advanced so much that the formats we currently use will become unreadable (and at risk of never being recovered) in the future.
Think of it this way, our online data may share a similar fate as that of records, cassette tapes and even CDs, where finding the correct equipment to use them is becoming increasingly difficult.
How will a digital dark age impact the future of information?
“[In the future], we may know less about the early 21st century than we do about the early 20th century,” says Rick West, data manager at Google
He continues, “The early 20th century is largely based on things like paper and film formats that are still accessible to a large extent, whereas much of what we're doing now — the things we're putting into the cloud, our digital content — is born digital.”
“It's not something that we translated from an analog container into a digital container but, in fact, it is born [and now increasingly dies] as digital content, without any kind of analog counterpart.”
And while most of what the Internet plays host to might be cat videos and memes (you can decide for yourself if losing that information is detrimental or not
) it does also store data containing the science behind vaccines, architectural blueprints and records of our current history, etc. — information that could greatly benefit, or at the very least, inform future generations.
Is there anything we can do to prevent a digital dark age?
The real problem comes in when people need access to information that has been lost.
For example, imagine the year is 2109 and for the first time in over a century there’s an outbreak of the H1N1 virus. Medical professionals may not have access to the research or the vaccine that was created during our lifetime because it was stored on digital databases.
This means they’ll need to spend time doing new research and testing new vaccines instead of having immediate access to the cure.
However, it’s not all doom and gloom — before the information apocalypse can ensue, it’ll first need to go through a number of data managers and scientists who are actively trying to prevent it.
There are many ways to copy digital content into their analog counterparts (like magnetic tapes or optical media files etc.), the most promising and unconventional approach, according to Lauren Young,
is to store data in DNA.
“DNA won’t degrade over time like cassette tapes and CDs, and it won’t become obsolete,” says Yaniv Erlich, a computer scientist at Columbia University
Further, storing data in DNA could be a great space-saver. According to Robert F. Service in an article for Science Magazine
, "A single gram of DNA could, in principle, store every bit of datum ever recorded by humans in a container about the size and weight of a couple of pickup trucks.”
So while the future of data storage is unclear, we can live safe in the knowledge that there are teams of people committed to ensuring that our information won’t be left in the dark. How would you feel about storing data using DNA? Let us know in the comments section below.
*Image courtesy of Vecteezy