Many historians, especially biographers, rely almost entirely on physical documents written by, to, and about their subjects. But since the Google Generation’s communication is via emails, texts, and tweets — ephemeral bits racing around the globe at the speed of light — what will remain for historians to study in order to tell the story of mankind in the 21st century? What if the tidal waves of data cannot be read by computers of the future? Some experts are pessimistic, including Vinton Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google. At a conference of scientists in California in February 2015, Cerf predicted what he calls the “Digital Dark Ages”: “If we’re thinking 1,000 years, 3,000 years ahead in the future, we have to ask ourselves, how do we preserve all the bits that we need in order to correctly interpret the digital objects we create? We are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realizing it.” Cerf has three chief concerns: first, that no one is saving emails in a permanent way; second, it is difficult if not impossible for a person in the present to ascertain what will be important in the future (“sometimes documents and transactions images and so on may turn out to have an importance which is not understood for hundreds of years.); and third, that computers of the future will not be able to read data written by ancient software. Cerf doesn’t even mention a fourth very real concern — pulling a “Hillary Clinton” and deleting all the files on purpose! Cerf argues that we need to start thinking of those future historians and what they will need to study the Google Generation: “We’re going to have to build into our thinking the concept of preservation writ large,” Cerf states, which means that the digerati needs to start printing images and documents, as well as leaving behind instructions on how data can be read.
The foremost authority on books and paper, Nicholas Basbanes, would definitely concur with Cerf. In an interview with Amazon.com Review, promoting his latest book, On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History, Basbanes laments the decline of the written word: “I think future generations may regret the absence of hard-copy diaries, journals, correspondence and the like from people living an exclusively electronic kind of life. These are artifacts that give us so much information about the way people think and how they live at a particular point in time, and to eliminate them as a resource for future scholars is a palpable loss. Think of what we would have missed if John and Abigail Adams had texted each other digitally during the years of the Revolution, and not written the kind of letters that truly span the centuries, or if their son, John Quincy Adams, had not kept a daily diary from the time he was twelve to a few days before he died in 1848 at the age of eighty.” And Basbanes, like Cerf, notes the risk of not being able to read digital media: “[The] National Archives is working to develop reliable ways to insure that electronic records are stored in ways that they will be preserved permanently in standard formats, and ‘readable’ to future researchers. In fact that’s the biggest challenge professional archivists face today, the long-term conservation of ‘born digital’ materials.”
One can only hope that historians do not judge the digitally-obsessed Google Generation too harshly — if they can.
For further reading: On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History by Nicholas Basbanes (2013)