As operating systems and software get upgraded, documents and images stored using older technology are becoming increasingly inaccessible, said Dr Vinton Cerf, who holds the title of chief internet evangelist at Google.
In centuries to come, future historians looking back on the current era could be confronted by a digital desert comparable with the dark ages – the post-Roman period in Western Europe about which relatively little is known because of the scarcity of written records.
Dr Cerf said: “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 realising it.
“The 22nd century and future centuries after that will wonder about us but they’ll have great difficulty knowing much because so much of what we’ve left behind may be bits that are uninterpretable.”
He urged people to think about printing out their treasured photos and not rely on storing them as memory files.
“In our zeal to get excited about digitising we digitise photographs thinking it’s going to make them last longer, and we might turn out to be wrong,” he said.
“I would say if there are photos you are really concerned about create a physical instance of them. Print them out.”
Dr Cerf was speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in the Silicon Valley capital, San Jose, California.
He warned that the failure to preserve documents and images will cause humanity to lose its perspective. One possible solution is the “digital vellum” – a snapshot taken at the time an item is stored.