We're in danger of losing the Internet. Our treasure chest of digital content—all the photos, videos, and music we so covet—might one day disappear, according to Google's Chief Internet Evangelist; it's a result of the legal, political, and technical challenges of archiving not just documents, but also the software and hardware needed to view them.
"Preserving bits is not terribly hard," says Vinton Cerf, whose title really is Chief Internet Evangelist for Google. Cerf is referring here to the zeroes and ones that make up any and every computer file ever created. It's preserving the meaning of those bits, Cerf says, that's the real challenge.
Preserving hardware as virtual, software-based machines will be tricky, too, Cerf says, since engineers will have to design their software to emulate a physical, sometimes finicky system in high detail.
Before the dawn on the computer in the 1940s and especially before the explosion of digital storage in the last few decades, most documents were stored on a relatively stable medium: paper, or perhaps microfilm. Vellum and stone tablets preserved even ancient documents, allowing historians a window into how people lived long ago.
Cerf cites historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, for which she reproduced dialog by combing libraries for actual correspondence between Abraham Lincoln and his advisors. Those letters are still around to be perused by anyone who can read English, yet the technology needed to read this story properly may not be around 20 years from now.
Xerox PARC researcher Glenn Edens puts it this way: In looking at some PowerPoint presentation or music files laying around, "Do you think that the thing that reads it will be around in 20 years?"
Some of the issues may be quite technical. Cisco Fellow David Oran, who joined Cerf and Edens for a seminar on the future of the Internet at the 2015 annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, says that researchers will have to figure out how to preserve present-day cryptography systems and "rekey" them every so often to maintain security and, for the right people, access.
Preserving hardware as virtual, software-based machines will be tricky, too, Cerf says, since engineers will have to design their software to emulate a physical, sometimes finicky system in high detail. On that front, Cerf credits the Olive system, designed by Carnegie Mellon University professor Mahadev Satyanarayanan, for making significant strides here.
But there are serious social challenges as well, Cerf says: "Around the edges of this problem are intellectual property issues" and other legal and political challenges. After all, does Microsoft want you to keep a copy of Word 95 or Windows 7 around forever? Cerf adds that while there is a lot to preserve and many challenges to face, it's still a good idea to preserve it so that future historians can see how we lived. "I think if we don't do something about it, it will do harm" to the generations to come, he says.