Vint Cerf, the living legend largely responsible for the development of the Internet protocol suite, has some concerns about history. In his current column for the Communications of the ACM, Cerf worries about the decreasing longevity of our media, and, thus, about our ability as a civilization to self-document—to have a historical record that one day far in the future might be remarked upon and learned from. Magnetic films do not quite have the staying power as clay tablets.
It's more than a then-vs-now thing. It's a progression through history. Clay tablets are more resilient than papyrus manuscripts are more resilient than parchment are more resilient than printed photographs are more resilient than digital photographs.
At stake, according to Cerf, is "the possibility that the centuries well before ours will be better known than ours will be unless we are persistent about preserving digital content. The earlier media seem to have a kind of timeless longevity while modern media from the 1800s forward seem to have shrinking lifetimes. Just as the monks and Muslims of the Middle Ages preserved content by copying into new media, won't we need to do the same for our modern content?"
As media becomes more ephemeral across technological generations, the more it depends on the technological generation that comes next. As the paper texts of just a few decades ago fade and crumble, their only hope is digitization. The historical record depends on future technology—necessarily—which is a bit unsettling.
"It seems inescapable that our society will need to find its own formula for underwriting the cost of preserving knowledge in media that will have some permanence," Cerf concludes. "That many of the digital objects to be preserved will require executable software for their rendering is also inescapable. Unless we face this challenge in a direct way, the truly impressive knowledge we have collectively produced in the past 100 years or so may simply evaporate with time."