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In February, Vint Cerf—Internet pioneer and current Vice President at Google—warned of an upcoming Digital Dark Age. Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, Cerf cautioned that we may be facing a “forgotten century” as important data and information becomes lost to future generations.

“We digitise things because we think we will preserve them”, observed Cerf, “but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse, than the artefacts that we digitised”. To emphasise his point, Cerf suggested that if there are any photos you really care about, you should probably print them out. 

The challenge boils down to digital obsolescence in the face of changing technology standards. As hardware and software marches inexorably forward, data and documents stored in previous generation formats may not always be viewable in the future.

For a simple example, think no further than your collection of family videos.  Today you may capture moments on a smartphone, while five years ago it may have been a Flip camera and ten years ago on VHS. But how many of us still have VHS players in our homes? Chances are those adorable “baby’s first steps” videos locked away in your attic are all but unviewable today.

This problem is compounded when taken to the enterprise level. Organisations have myriads of critical data like customer information, financial records, sales contracts, compliance documents, market research, support logs and strategic plans that may need to be accessed at any point in the future. But as the march of technology progresses, data stored in legacy formats runs the risk of becoming obsolete, and organisations run the risk of losing institutional knowledge, regulatory compliance and even competitive advantage.

IDC believes organisations should think seriously about their data archiving strategies, and put in place the necessary tools, governance and processes to ensure critical data doesn’t fall into a digital black hole. Companies can borrow from existing strategies and best practices, such as those used to ensure the transfer of knowledge from institutional “old timer” employees and keepers of corporate secrets.  A sound strategy should ensure archived data is not only secure, but is also easily accessible by whoever needs it—IT, Compliance or line of business managers—whenever and wherever it’s needed, regardless of the media used for storage.

In fact, the timing of Mr Cerf’s comments is appropriate because IDC is launching a thought leadership study sponsored by Iron Mountain called “Mining for Insight: Rediscovering the Archive”. In this global study of over 1,000 IT, Compliance and line of business executives, IDC will characterise the value of the data stored in organisations’ archives and issues and challenges around accessing this value. We expect to be publishing the results of this study in the coming months so stay tuned to hear a lot more from us on this topic.