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Vint Cerf Explains Project to Stem “Bit Rot”

By Hatti Hamlin

“Your digital images, videos and documents may rot away if you can no longer run the application software that helped you create them.”

Vint Cerf worries about a digital Dark Age.
Interviewed by NPR host Bob Garfield for “On The Media,” the Marconi Fellow explained how Google and many other organizations are working to find a way to create “digital vellum” to save Internet content that otherwise will soon disappear.

Cerf pointed out that “bit rot,” referring to the inability to display or interpret digital content, comes in several flavors, including media stored physically–which might in the future exist on long-outdated software posing barriers to future access. Even if bits in older media are carefully copied and preserved in newer media, someone needs to also preserve the “executable environment” nneded so that the software that created those bits can still be run.

In the interview Cerf pointed to one very promising project, OLIVE, at Carnegie Mellon, which he uncovered in the course of exploring the digital vellum idea. Professor Mahadev “Satya” Satyanarayanan has found a way to take a notional “digital x-ray” of the machine that has the operating system running and the application running as well as a description of the way the hardware works. By capturing and reloading all that information into (for example) the cloud, a virtual machine could emulate the older hardware and run the old operating system and application code.