Data that's here today could be gone tomorrow, says Cerf

"Backward compatibility is very hard to preserve over very long periods of time"

Internet pioneer Vinton Cerf is concerned that we're at risk of losing much of the data we've been creating in the digital age he helped usher in.

Speaking at the Computerworld Honors awards program earlier this month, the co-designer of the Internet's TCP/IP protocol said he's concerned that digital items we use today -- spreadsheets, documents and scientific data -- will one day be lost, perhaps one day soon.

To support his point, Cerf noted that the Microsoft Office 2011 software on his Macintosh computer can't read a 1997 PowerPoint file. "It doesn't know what it is," he said.

"I'm not blaming Microsoft," said Cerf, who is Google's vice president and chief Internet evangelist. "What I'm saying is that backward compatibility is very hard to preserve over very long periods of time."

Preserving files on disks isn't the answer, because digital content is meaningful only if software can interpret it. "We may lose the ability to understand the disk," he said.

It's not just PowerPoint slides, he said. The vast amounts of data that scientists collect from simulations and instrument readings may also be lost. The key is to preserve the metadata, which tells the conditions under which the data was collected, how the instruments were calibrated and the correct interpretation of units.

What's needed, Cerf said, is a "digital vellum," a means as durable and long-lasting as the material that has preserved written content for more than 1,000 years.

Fortunately, he said, the world is aware of the problem and efforts are underway to solve it.

This version of this story was originally published in Computerworld's print edition. It was adapted from an article that appeared earlier on Computerworld.com.

Read more about applications in Computerworld's Applications Topic Center.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.
Show Comments

Blog Posts

Does your brand need a personality review?

There are five tell-tale signs your brand needs to take a long hard look at itself.

Charlie Rose

Senior Strategy Consultant, Principals

How to create profitable pricing

How do we price goods and services? As business leaders, we have asked ourselves this question since the history of trading.

Lee Naylor

Managing partner, The Leading Edge

Sport and sponsorship: The value of event sponsorship

Australia’s cricketers captured the nation’s attention during their recent run to the semi-final of the ICC Men’s World Cup. While the tournament ultimately ended in defeat, for over a month it provoked a sense of belonging, hope and empowerment for millions of people across Australia. Cricket, and sport in general, has a near-unique ability to empower individuals, irrelevant of their background, demographic or nationality.

Nikhil Arora

Vice-president and managing director, GoDaddy India

Thank you, so do I.

David Freeman

Sustainability of message: H2coco founder's commitment to consumers

Read more

Hi Harry, thank you for pointing this out I can confidently say both these bottles are in transition away from PET as we continue to impr...

David Freeman

Sustainability of message: H2coco founder's commitment to consumers

Read more

I’m confused. He has a giant 2l hard plastic bottle in Coles and his pink bottle is also in plastic??

Harry

Sustainability of message: H2coco founder's commitment to consumers

Read more

Great message from an Aussie company about sustainable business practices, particularly packaging. Wish more businesses would think more ...

Krisy

Sustainability of message: H2coco founder's commitment to consumers

Read more

Well, I wish we could change the situation. But I am not sure it's possible.

Patricia Miller

Does social media make astroturfing acceptable?

Read more

Latest Podcast

More podcasts

Sign in