Vint Cerf on being forgotten or remembered

Anna Valmero, participant #hlf14: Humans of today will be ghosts in history unless the challenge of digital preservation is addressed.

This was the challenge posed to attendees of this year’s Heidelberg Laureate Forum by Turing Awardee Vint Cerf, TCP/IP co-designer who, together with Bob Khan, is regarded as the father of the Internet (although he himself insists that it took the work of thousands of people to realize the Internet from its military roots to a powerful, complex organism it is today).

Why is it important to preserve digital bits of data? And why is it a challenge?

Imagine this scenario, Cerf says:

Can a MS Powerpoint Year 3000 version open up a presentation done in 1997?

Vint Cerf at #hlf14 Credit: hlff/Flemming

Vint Cerf at #hlf14
Credit: hlff/Flemming

First, preserving digital bits of information — which range from documents, spreadsheets, music, images, social media posts, and GIS maps, among others — goes beyond the act of simply recording data itself.

Maybe, instead of simply preserving data, “we should be creating archives of software that produced the object (bits),” Cerf says.

There is the need to archive the software that produced the data and ensure that the interface (both hardware and software) of tomorrow can correctly execute the code and algorithm to interpret those digital bits.

Programs use different languages and compilers, which often are interpreted by a computer using a particular instruction set. And with most computers now having a lifecycle of a year before another hardware upgrade is sold over the shelves, the next area of concern is this: we need to ask the instruction set if we can emulate the machine.

Running a particular program will also depend on the specific open-source or commercial OS environment and its version.

“The process of remembering all these data is crucial in order to remember info (digital bits) is inescapable. If the software becomes unavailable, the bits may mean nothing and what you have is a pile of rotten bits,” explains Cerf.

This then brings the discussion to intellectual property (IP) rights and source code access to programs. At present, varying legal rules on intellectual property rights per country produce a limited view in terms of enabling copyright freedom that can forster access to source code of hardware or software as a means of digital preservation for the whole of society.

And then there’s the cloud, which opens up a new set of interesting challenges on its own such as how to make clouds talk to each other and at the same time, be able to remember the interaction of those files to web domains.

And while the Internet has made it easier to collaborate in terms of content creation, it make it harder to archive, the Internet evangelist adds. (This does not include the pain of preserving static objects—which is a totally longer explanation I may not touch on this blog.)

“You see, the Internet is such a peculiar thing. And a young man said that it won’t be a problem if we copy only the important stuff on a new standard format and discard the unimportant ones,” shares Cerf.

During a recent conference he attended with some 400 librarians, Cerf was told that history will show that the importance of documents may not be known until after a hundred years later. So maybe, sifting though which is important from not in the pile of digital bits, maybe a premature step.

But all these only represent one side of the coin.

“The problem of preserving our digital bits is easy. The hard part is figuring out what the bits mean.”

To which, the need for figuring out how to produce self-describing objects can lend a solution, wherein a few bits of information pulled from a digital object can help describe its content.

You wil be ghosts in history if you do not know how to preserve digital information,” Cerf tells the audience.

And in walking the delicate balance between those digital bits being forgotten or not, Cerf has one thing to say:


“While some argue we have a right to be forgotten, I say we have a right to be preserved and remembered.”

Do you share the same sentiment? Tell the HLF Blogging Team!

Anna Valmero

Anna Valmero

Anna Valmero is a Filipina science journalist from Manila, Philippines. She produces content for national, regional and US publications. She is also the Asian coordinator of the European Youth Press’ Orange Magazine Team for 2014-2015. Recently, she served as editor of the Orange Team during the 2014 Deutsche Welle Global Media Forum held in Bonn. Twitter: @annavalmero

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