Digital decay must be prevented


Richard Shu, Deputy Copy Chief

Google Vice President Vint Cerf issued a grave warning on Wednesday to a world reliant on digital communication — our online legacy is at risk of decaying. Technological advancement means that digitally produced data, photos, emails and tweets may become completely unreadable within a century because software moves so fast, and the ability to open older file-types is lost. Cerf’s advice to those fearing the worst is simple — print out the documents and photos that are most important. However, the smaller-scale preservation Cerf advocates may not be enough to preserve the reams of data that Internet users produce every day — 2.5 million terabytes worth.

Users now share thoughts and feelings with the click of a button, all while trumpeting the rise of the technology as the catalyst for revolutions. But this unprecedented change comes at the price of our past.

Before we know it, vacation selfies and family photos could be lost. Every change in technology has the potential to bring us closer to a unified society. What a shame it would be, then, if such a society had no memory of its past.

The problem of historical preservation is not new. During the medieval period, preservation was the foremost scholarly pursuit. Illuminated manuscripts became the legacy of Christian scholars, and they remain the primary means by which historians look back on that era. But in our modern STEM-focused culture, more people are focusing on how we will move forward than how we will be remembered. We think of ourselves as more enlightened than the Middle Ages, yet we ignore our crumbling technological infrastructure. We need to treat libraries kindly lest history forget us.

Universities and libraries like Bobst can play a major role in preserving the digital present. With just a little planning, keeping our vast stores of research and user data alive can be a relatively simple process. Turning a few resources away from convenience technology and toward preservation technology, like devoting more of NYU’s budget toward supporting the Bobst Library Preservation and Conservation Department, would help keep our silicon age from disappearing.

As a society and a community of students, we must commit more to the act of digital preservation. Libraries, librarians and technicians committed to the preservation of historical documents will play an increasingly important role in determining our digital history. A modern librarian must become more invested in the technology of the present. A modern socio-technological landscape must include an understanding of our relationship with our future selves. Otherwise, modern day history may become even darker than the Dark Ages.

A version of this article appeared in the Feb. 25 print edition. Email Richard Shu at [email protected]