The digital black hole: Are we deleting ourselves from history?

Published: February 19, 2015

“Are we simply suffering from information overload? How can we make sure that valuable content has a real legacy and endurance?”

It’s often wise to take anything a self-styled ‘evangelist’ says with a pinch of salt. But when the evangelist in question is digital pioneer and internet forefather Vint Cerf, it’s time to sit up and take notice. Cerf has warned that no effort is being made to store digital records in a way that will allow them to be accessed and understood in the future. He calls this the ‘digital black hole’, warning that we risk a whole century’s worth of history and communications sinking into obscurity. With apps, devices and software evolving at an enormous rate, how can we make sure that we don’t lose our digital records like cassette tapes in the glovebox of a Ford Cortina?

Fellow historians will understand the importance of accessible, readable records (even if sixteenth-century court assizes aren’t always the most riveting read) in understanding the societies of the past. How will historians of the future know about our lives and experiences, our events, our social, economic and political transformations without accessible archives? Anyone with VHS tapes, cassettes and floppy disks clogging up their cupboards will understand how quickly technology can become redundant. With tech changing at such a rapid rate and new devices launched all the time, how will our records be accessed and understood on in-retina wearable tech, or whatever our great, great grandchildren will be using in a few centuries time (personally, I’m still holding out for the hover board promised by the Back to the Future series)?

The challenge is enormous. Every minute, nearly 300,000 tweets are sent. Facebook users share nearly 2.5 million pieces of content. Almost 220,000 new photos are posted in Instagram. An astounding 72 hours of video are uploaded onto YouTube and over 4 million Google searches are made. Nearly 50,000 apps are downloaded and over 200 million emails are sent. All of this, in only a minute, every minute. This is an inconceivable amount of information, and much of it can at times feel like digital white noise. But blogs, online research and analysis that provide valuable insight that are revisited year after year. So how can we possibly sift through the important stuff and make sure it is saved for posterity? Are we simply suffering from information overload? How can we make sure that valuable content has a real legacy and endurance?

It would be easy to get pessimistic, but the huge strides we have made in technology and communications over recent decades are testament to our problem-solving abilities. We must develop a way that digital records can be stored in a readable way, on a ‘digital vellum’ that can be accessed by future generations. Thanks to the wealth of apps and rise of new technology, our way of using digital information is changing all the time. This is inarguably a good thing, but we must now pause and look at how we can leave our legacy behind and what our records will look like in the future.

Steps in the right direction are already being made. In 2010, the US Library of Congress agreed to archive public tweets sent since Twitter’s emergence in 2006. Since 2004, the British Library has been archiving websites for future generations, just as has been happening with books and papers for years. In 2013, non-print legal deposit regulations came into effect, allowing almost 5 million websites to be preserved for historical records. And, as always, there’s an app for that, with online tools such as Photobox and Printstagram allowing social media users to print physical photo albums from their uploads.

We are in the midst of a technology revolution. 3D printing, face recognition software and increasingly sophisticated algorithms give us greater opportunity than ever before to leave our mark on history. We must step up our efforts to this and harness our creativity and innovation to ensure a permanent legacy of this tech revolution.

Kate Bandeira

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