Losing Ourselves

Vint Cerf, Internet pioneer and current Google VP, recently expressed concerns about an approaching “digital dark age” in which our prized digital memories will be lost forever, not through cataclysm or degrading media, but because of the obsolescence of the hardware and software needed to access those digital objects. Cerf called for the creation of what he called “digital vellum,” a snapshot that includes content and its related software and hardware together in one package. This object would be preserved in some sort of cloud server structure along with a description of the machine needed to run it,thus allowing those in the distant future to access this era’s content by reproducing the environment in which it was originally created and stored.

This is a very real problem, one that anyone who grew up playing ancient video games is painfully aware of. My first computer was a ZX Spectrum+. It was a big improvement on the original Spectrum, with hard plastic keys (as opposed to the softer, much less user-friendly rubber keys of the previous version) and a whopping 48k of RAM (as opposed to 16k). When I was 13 my family moved from Uruguay to the US, and it didn’t survive the trip. I moved on to the NES, and that was that, or at least that was the case until the age of the emulator dawned on us. Today, anyone feeling the pangs of nostalgia can go to one of several fan sites and download a Spectrum emulator, as well as a broad complement of games and other programs. The machine itself has disappeared, but its spirit, if you will, lives on to, in theory, captivate new generations of enthusiasts. I mean, there’s only so much you can do with 48k.

The problem with the emulator model is that it requires a fan base with enough critical mass and resources to support the effort necessary to create (and update) the emulation software, something that will  become less and less likely as the original users of these machines give way to new generations that lack familiarity with them. My son will grow up playing Wii, or PS4; why would he care about the Spectrum, or the original NES? Digital vellum is a better idea, closer in kin to digital archeology and/or anthropology, but who is going to devote resources to a project of this magnitude? Software and hardware creators are unlikely to carve room out of their bottom lines for something like this. If Mr. Cerf is this concerned about the idea, then Google may get involved, but we’ve seen what happens when they grow bored with a project (or find that it’s not as profitable as they once thought). Organizations like Internet Archive are committed to digital preservation, but their resources are limited. So who is going to do this?