If History Goes Paperless, History Goes Away

Vint Cerf is widely recognized as one of the founders of the internet (he co-developed TCP/IP with Bob Kahn). Now at age 76 he’s focusing his attention on the interplanetary internet, so we can stay connected no matter where humans roam, according to Steve Johnson in Printing Impressions.

And he’s concerned that our growing reliance on digital media to preserve history is going to lead us to the eventual “digital dark ages.”

“I worry a great deal about that,” Cerf told the BBC after speaking at an American Association for the Advance of Science meeting in 2015. “Old formats of documents that we’ve created or presentations may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backward compatibility is not always guaranteed. And so what can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is.”

Cerf wonders if maybe we should “preserve every piece of software and hardware ever made so that it will always be available to read archaic formats. Otherwise, the sum total of our knowledge from 1995 on may be lost to history,” Johnson notes.

“It’s an interesting idea, but I have a better one,” Johnson writes. “Print it. Apparently, Vint Cerf is not the only one worried about digital obsolescence, and I’m not the only one who thinks print is the answer.”

To stress the immediate need to stop relying on digital archives, Johnson shared an email from his bank, which just announced a merger with a larger bank. The email cautioned that current payees and banking history would not be transferred to their new online banking system. Their advice? Print it out.

Image source: Steve Johnson via Printing Impressions

“Yes, you read that correctly,” Johnson explains. “The years of banking history stored digitally, that we, your bank, encouraged you to use when we told you to ‘go green’ and eliminate paper statements, that history is going to be deleted. By us, your bank. Gone forever. In a few days. What to do?”

Print it out.

We’re already seeing the risk of losing our personal digital histories … remember when Microsoft closed down their ebook platform last summer, taking any books you had with it? And when Amazon reminded us all we really don’t “own” our Kindle books? What if Google decides to make us pay for Google Drive, and our family photos we’ve scanned and shared with the cousins goes away?

This is just the personal side of the equation; in reality it’s a human level challenge.

“Vint Cerf’s glorious idea of preserving every computing device and language for posterity wouldn’t help in this case, because the bank is deleting the information. Think about it. It is your information, but they are deleting it,” Johnson notes.

As our world continues to move online, we must take a step back and decide what needs to be saved … in a format that depends only on our ability to read.