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Web Archiving Can Help Prevent a ‘Digital Dark Age’


digital-dark-age-364224-editedFor years, you’ve been taking, sharing and storing photos on Instagram, Facebook, Google+ or perhaps Flickr (if you’re “old school”)—and Vint Cerf is worried about that.

Cerf, a Google vice president who is widely acknowledged as one of the “fathers of the Internet,” helped pioneer the technology that allows you to read these words on your computer monitor or mobile screen. Cerf isn’t precisely worried about your data surviving; rather, he’s worried that a day will come when we will be unable to access that data.

To better understand Cerf’s theoretical concerns about your data, consider this question: where is your cassette player?

If you are under the age of 35, you can be forgiven for thinking, “my what?” Younger people may only know cassette players as those funny, seemingly useless rectangular slots in the middle of many old car stereos. Increasingly, though, even those who remember using the dominant audio recording format of the 1970s and 1980s would have a hard time putting their hands on a working cassette player, even if they still own a dusty box of old albums on cassette.

Of course, cassettes—which were also used for data storage on many early personal computer models—were not used just to store commercial recordings of popular music. Innumerable other audio records, from news interviews and college lectures to family histories and personal memoirs, remain stored solely on cassettes. Without cassette technology, which has quickly fallen out of production, these records will be inaccessible to future generations.

Considering how ubiquitous cassette media was a generation ago, it seems fair to ask: are today’s common technological formats such as JPEG and MP3 the “cassette tapes” of the 2000s? What does that mean for, say, the millions upon millions of irreplaceable family photographs that exist today only “as bits of information – on our hard drives or in ‘the cloud,’” said the BBC, noting that “as technology moves on, they risk being lost in the wake of an accelerating digital revolution.”

In February 2015, Cerf warned that our drive to digitize everything could led to a “digital dark age,” a future era when the technology used to create and access today’s digital records has faded into obsolescence. That would leave a gap in history that Cerf compared to the early medieval Dark Ages in Western Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire when a drop in literacy and the loss of access to papyrus-based writing material from Egypt helped contribute to a dramatic decline in the creation of written materials. As a result, historians know relatively little about early medieval Europe in comparison to many other places during the same era.

Web archiving is not the whole solution to staving off a digital dark age, but we believe it to be an important part of the solution. The practice of web archiving is largely shielded from the dangers of format shifts. Web archiving and the assets it protects are constantly evolving to adapt to the online medium. To return to the cassette analogy, a web archiving project that is capturing a complete website with embedded media isn’t capturing only the cassettes, but also the cassette player.

If you have a responsibility to keep online assets from disappearing into a digital dark age, call us to find out how our web archiving offerings can keep your web-based assets accessible for generations to come.

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