Why I'm Not at All Concerned About Google VP Vint Cerf's Warned Bit Rot

Why I'm Not at All Concerned About Google VP Vint Cerf's Warned Bit Rot

Last month, internet pioneer and Google Vice President Vint Cerf warned the world on BBC about the impermanence of our data in a digital form due to the fact that the technology that can read it today will become obsolete. He argued that in a few hundred years, we may not be able to read any of the images or videos created today for the same reason we can't read a floppy disk: because technology will have moved on without us, and without that information. But is he right?

In the video below, a possible solution to "bit rot" is to print out your photos. A second solution is to take a "digital snapshot" of the current environment (the computers, the software, the hard drive media) in order to preserve the environment necessary to read today's data.

In reality, the fact is that professional photographers, and other hobbyists and advanced amateurs who care enough about their photographs, will convert their images and video data to the necessary formats as those formats are created. We haven't yet had a new format so revolutionary to the photography world that it requires a conversion of all of our photographs to stay relevant. But that time will come. And when it does, I (and most likely you) will be converting my entire library.

Me, you, the other readers of our website, the two professional photographers in the world that don't read our website, we're not that many people when you add us all together. Yes, billions of people's photographs will get lost, then. But as bad as it may sound, we just don't need their photographs to help preserve history. A few hundred dads and moms will convert their poorly composed and half-blurry photographs of children playing their Game Boys in the backs of their cars, and that will be a few hundred more than we'll really need.

There used to be a time when every photograph was important. In the 1830s, there were probably only so many photographs in existence that they could all fit neatly on your desk, maybe in a few small stacks. And those are incredibly important photographs for obvious historical reasons. But who needs the billions of selfies we create every day of ourselves (myself actually not included, for once) plastered in last night's club-hopping experience? Who needs all the photos of the backyard barbecues, wives half-naked in bed (okay, we may need those), and children being fed their first meals in their high chairs?

While we may want to think all of our photographs should be so important, they're just not. History will survive in a very healthy form with all of the photographs that will naturally be preserved by those who care. And it's all simply because we have enough; Enough photographers (everyone), enough photographs, and enough people who really care.

I'm not worried about that at all. I'm far more worried about the viability of prints, as though that's a real solution. Papyrus from Egypt survived millennia, but in what condition? Researchers were able to recover the contents of the writings on the papyrus, but is our experience with that papyrus the same as it was for the Egyptian that wrote on its surface years ago? Is the color of the paper the same? Can we even hold it in our hands in the same way? Not without it falling apart on us.

We can place prints on the highest quality, acid-free, most archival paper and with the best inks into dark, low-humidity vaults... But even those will not last forever, and certainly not in the condition in which they began their lives as so-called historical, archival documents.

Until just a few years ago, it was thought that "Pompeii Red" was indeed the color of Pompeii so prominently displayed on frescos that covered the ancient city's walls. However, it was only recently discovered that many of the walls and frescos were in fact originally painted in a yellow color that was turned red by the gasses and heat of Mount Vesuvius' eruption that so infamously swallowed the ancient city.

So what is the answer? Perhaps we should do both. Perhaps we should print digital photographs, keep them for 50 years, and then reprint them with better printers and better technologies every 50 years into eternity. But wouldn't that take just so many resources? And would it be worth it?

Call me too laissez-faire, if you like, but I'm sticking with my gut on this one: we'll have enough.

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Brett Martin's picture

I'm doing what the library of congress is doing and using DNG in LightRoom. Raw files get converted to DNG on import, edits can be saved in both the LR catalog and in the DNG file itself preventing a corrupt library from ruining the collection. One click to verify every single photo in the library or backup of the library is valid and not a single bit has changed. I've even converted my "snapshots" to DNG from JPG. Checkout "The DAMN Book" for more info.

"we may not be able to read any of the images or videos created today for the same reason we can't read a floppy disk" ? One is a file container, the other is a physical storage medium, I don't see how that is a reasonable analogy.

Mark Harris's picture

Glad to hear someone saying this louder than I can. The reason we can't read floppy disks now is that we don't care enough - back then there weren't enough users and important data to warrant floppy disk reading services. But with the billions of jpegs, TIFFS, and SATA disks we have now, there will always be a market for products and services that can read them. Plus everything Adam said about serious photographers moving their stuff to new media when it arrives anyway.

Adam Ottke's picture

To Jim Holmes' point, well...he has a good point. But I'm not worried about a Carrington Event. I mean, sure, I am. But just so much as I'm worried about a major terrorist attack that wipes out half of this country. Will it happen? Honestly, probably at some point in the future. But will I change the way I live for it. For better or for worse -- no. I can't plan my life around the possibilities of such events. We're going to lose some stuff in time one way or another. But I think we'll be able to save what we need as long as civilization lasts. A Carrington Event tomorrow would suck. But we'd all find a way, somehow, to carry on. And I think past history and our own history would live on fine. But maybe I'm just too naive...

I don't know when the next generational jump in storage media, digital image formats, software, operating systems or even computer processors will occur. Any of these changes could render the digital image of the time obsolete.

What happens after you are dead? Will your images die with you? Will your children or grandchildren do the conversion process for you to preserve your legacy photographs?

The container medium is not the issue. Its more the ability to accurately decipher and display the images. Imagine yourself as a software engineer in 300 years being given a specification sheet for .CR2 format images and being asked to write something to display that on whatever display tech they have then.
Computers wont be using bytes or serialised file system formats fro writing the data. He is looking at the Exabytes of information that will be generated every year and thinking about the millions of file formats within that and being concerned that that knowledge will be lost to an ever evolving technology base.
The files may be around but will anyone be willing to convert them through the decades to updated formats. When Google eventually disappears or is bought out, will the parent company see the trillions of photos they have amassed as worthwhile or will the reduce costs and delete everything before selling the servers off.
Also from the purely tech standpoint.. bit rot is the unnoticed changing of information on a atomic or quantum level which corrupts files.