What is the Downside to Digitization?

Although there is a lot of momentum behind the digitization of official documents, two Web experts question what happens if content doesn't survive or is encrypted and the key is lost.

by Gary Warth, The San Diego Union-Tribune / February 1, 2016

(TNS) -- In a sprawling talk that ranged from the preservation of digitized documents to the future of cursive handwriting, Internet pioneer Vint Cerf and Bruce Cole of the Ethics and Public Policy Center were optimistic about the future of technology, yet wary of it.

Invited to deliver the annual John R. Adams Lecture in Humanities at San Diego State University last week, the duo’s talk transcended academics and raised concerns for anyone who has ever stored a family album or manuscript on a computer.

“We have evidence that a photograph can last 150 years,” Cerf said in an interview before the Tuesday lecture. “We do not have any evidence that any digitized objects can last 150 years.”

The two had never given a talk together before, and Cerf said he immediately thought of inviting his friend Cole to join him after he received an invitation from SDSU to speak on the topic, the future of the humanities in a digital age.

“My reaction was, ‘We need to do a duet,’” Cerf said.

“We’re ready to take this show on the road,” said Cole, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Policy Center and the longest-standing chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Cerf, whose job title at Google is vice president and chief Internet evangelist, is responsible for enabling technologies and applications on the Internet and other platforms for the company. As a co-designer of the basic communication language of the Internet and a key player in the technology’s early days while at the U.S. Department of Defense’s Advanced Research Projects Agency, Cerf has been called the father of the Internet.

Looking ahead, Cerf said he has some concerns about the trend of digitizing documents, photos and music.

Cerf said that while he doesn’t pretend to be an expert in humanities, he’s a lover of books with a focus on electronics and is concerned that some works may be lost in a future digital dark age.

“This great effort to digitize everything, including Google’s efforts to digitize books, has a downside, which is the possibility that the digital media will not survive,” he said.

If the media does survive, Cerf said there is another issue of whether software and hardware will be available to read the digitized artifacts. If the company that makes the operating system goes out of business, for instance, who will have the rights to the technology needed to read the encoded bytes?

“The idea that somebody would continue to write software that’s backward compatible with something that’s 100 years old is not so clear,” he said. “It’s already not clear talking about 10 years. The big problem we have is making sure these digital objects that we create are in fact correctly renderable in the future.”

Cerf and Cole also are concerned that some documents that are digitized and archived on the web might disappear.

Cerf explained that one vulnerability of storing anything online is the vulnerability of the domain name system.

If someone who holds a domain name fails to keep up payments on it, he said, the name could be turned over to a new owner.

“At that point, the access to the information is effectively lost if the way you were getting to it was through the URL reference,” Cerf said.

From a humanities aspect, Cole said he’s concerned about things that are born digitally.

“There’s the problem of correspondence,” he said. “You can read all of (Robert) Browning’s letters, but what do you do today when authors are writing to each other and their manuscripts are all born digitally?”

Cerf and Cole agree that there will always be something special about physical artifacts.

“They’re a way of focusing people’s attention and creating a relation,” Cerf said. “Bruce had this wonderful observation about when you touch something, it creates a bond with that object and it links you with everybody else.”

“You’ve touched it, but who else has touched it?” Cole said. “You join this kind of community. When I go to a museum and I look at a Rembrandt, I think ‘Who else has been here?’ For some things, digital is wonderful, but it’s not a substitute for the real thing. And that’s a danger, that people won’t really look at museums anymore.”

During the question-and-answer period of their talk, an audience member asked the two about the future of penmanship. Cole said it appeared to be disappearing. His grandchildren can only write in block letters, he said.

Cerf recalled that Henry Kissenger once told him that his grandchildren were unable to read handwritten letters he had accumulated. He also recalled visiting a museum and realizing that he struggled to read any writing 500 years old or older.

“It’s unnerving to think we’ll have documents that people can’t read or that look funny to them in 30 or 50 years,” he said.

The two men also admitted to be somewhat tied to technology. Cerf recalled a time when a power outage hit while he was writing.

“I sat down with a paper and pen, and then had to look up something but I couldn’t because the network wasn’t available,” he said. “I was shocked at how fast I gave up.”

With that confession, he vowed that he would write his next paper without any help from the Internet.

©2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Platforms & Programs