On an ominous Friday the 13th, February 2015, Google vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf warned of a 'digital Dark Age'. According to Cerf, the digital heritage of the 21st century might very well become inaccessible to future generations. In an interview with BBC journalist Pallab Ghosh, Cerf shares his worries and mentions he is working on a solution to this new problem that, according to him, threatens to eradicate our history.
Data – even though it has a very immaterial ring to it – needs a physical carrier. This carrier has a limited lifespan. It might feel as if we've made incredible technological advances in the past seventy years, we still struggle to find a reliable one. Another obstacle on the road to long-term data storage is obsolescence. To maximize profits the industry has set a rapid pace for updates. Both the machines that host, the software that is used to create, and the formats to save the data are replaced. Which brings us to the economic factor, storing data is not cheap. It involves more than updating and maintaining hardware, you also have to keep the data retrievable and when it comes to large data sets this requires two pricey things: manpower and considerable amounts of electricity.
So we risk losing a lot, what to do? Cerf advises us to entrust our data to the cloud, there the experts can make sure it will survive the ages. But he has a vested interest. He works there. The solution Cerf is working on only addresses obsolescence, making sure the data can still be read. It doesn't address the problem of who has access to, and who has control over this data. Real clouds don't have owners, but Cerf's cloud does. It is owned by a company, owned by shareholders who are not known for their long term view or philanthropic mission. Next to that, Cerf wisely doesn't speak of who will extract something of value from this unfathomable amount of information, and for what purpose. After all, he is in the business of selling – to whoever is willing to pay – opportunities to influence people’s behavior.
People run marathons with a High Definition video camera on their head, 400 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, and every day 95 million photos are added to Instagram, while there are 1.94 billion active monthly Facebook users. Friday March 31st 3,731,973,423 people were online. We are over 3 billion strong and we're dedicated to documenting ourselves in ever greater detail. Why?
We have become our own Big Brother. The hoarding of information about ourselves in an attempt to improve our performance, inspired by the Quantified Self movement, is only the tip of the iceberg. It doesn't explain the obsessive dedication with which we, even post-Snowden, share intimate details about ourselves to an often not too clearly defined group of others. What possesses us? We connect, trying to avoid social exclusion, but there's more to it. In Together Alone, Sherry Turkle explains how social media allow us to present an ideal version of ourselves, to have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We don't feel like we're interacting with algorithms tuned to specific business models, we are simply being social.
There is more to our relation with data. In Requiem for a Species, Clive Hamilton describes how our individual sense of self has become bound up with how we consume, how our desires to buy products grow out of the need to find and express a sense of self. Since it is impossible to find an authentic identity in products, there is a constant dissatisfaction leading to more spending – the perfect formula for economic growth. The resulting over-consumption has led to strange things: from home organizers who help us feel less oppressed by our belongings, to shopping now perceived as leisure. Advertisement has married consumption to self-completion, and the Internet is the promised land where the seekers can express, and search for, their authentic self.
The more information you broadcast about yourself the better the advertisement companies can provide you with a mirror of this ideal self, a much needed confirmation while at the same time a trigger to consume more. Our houses are bursting at the seems, our data bodies morbidly obese. Metaphors like the cloud promise infinite liposuction, delegating the storage of our excesses to what seems like outer space not unlike our attics and self-storage boxes hide the excesses of our material consumerism. What are we so hungry to save? What do we want to transmit to the future?
In the end, we can only speculate on what might prove valuable in a hundred years from now. From the perspective of a hot and ice-less planet, no longer facing disasters but living them, our cloud might tell a different story than we'd imagine. Our connected and information hungry lifestyles are leaving behind more than the noise we generate while socializing with the technology we surround ourselves with. Our seemingly immaterial legacy has a physical impact. It requires massive data centers filled with energy hungry, heat producing servers. Each and every storage device in each and every server rack in need of replacement when it starts to falter. Every thing we use to connect to it will be replaced because of a desire for the latest model, or because it was built to break.
The physical nature of digital information is neatly hidden. Most of it is exported to the less privileged parts of the world, where labor is cheap, and where there is limited regulatory oversight into health, safety and environmental impact. The export of e-waste has resulted in extreme pollution with serious negative impact on the health of locals in for instance Ghana and China. Mining for the minerals needed to produce the devices hosting our data is leading to ecocide and slavery in areas of conflict in Africa and extreme pollution in China. The factories that produce our tech, such as the ones owned by the Taiwanese Foxconn, provide their workers with tiny wages and very poor working conditions. Only now that regulations are getting more strict, and because we're running out of certain metals and mining them becomes increasingly costly, have we begun to recycle a tiny amount of old hardware in the developed world, perhaps slightly diminishing pollution elsewhere but keeping the economic inequality intact.
Cerf warns us about the possible eradication of our history, but future generations don’t need access to our data in order to write our story. Surveillance capitalism is leaving much deeper traces than those left on the magnetic film of our hard disks.