Secret Marketer: A digital dark age could wipe out all our work, but there is hope – our archivists

I have always had a passing interest in history, and more specifically keeping records for future generations.

When I first encountered the internet, one of the most exciting uses I put it to was unearthing my family tree – using genealogical records to piece together who was married to whom, and who gave birth to which family member that annoyingly had the same name as their forebear.

Anyway, I was very interested in a recent article from Vint Cerf, the so-called ‘father of the internet’, who said that he was worried that all the images, photographs and documents we have been saving on computers will eventually be lost. He warned that future generations could have little or no record of the 21st century as we enter the “digital dark age”.

Cerf makes a valid point. I no longer have any system capable of playing my ‘45s’ (vinyl records), my ‘VHS’ videotapes, or the 35mm slides or cinefilm on which my parents recorded their lives. I don’t even have the capability to access my computer files that not so long ago I meticulously recorded onto floppy discs.

And even today, although a lot of that data has been transferred onto mp3, jpeg or Microsoft Office files, who is to say that there will be systems around in 25 years’ time to read any of them? Even NASA has been caught out when trying to process the magnetic tapes from the 1976 Viking Mars landing – it discovered the data was unreadable as it was in an unknown format and the original programmers had either died or moved on.

In several of my past roles, I have worked for strong, heritage brands – and in most cases, the brand had an archivist, preserving much of the history of that brand, and, importantly, the role that brand had on the evolution of that category upon the world.

Too often, this individual was laughed at, ignored and relegated to not being a key part of the company’s incessant focus on the future. Yet they are crucial to preserving a record of what we have done – for the generations that follow – and probably will have  a far more lasting effect than any of us worrying about this year’s business performance figures.

The question I ask is that even if the archivist avoids the budget cuts, will any of those advertising campaigns, social media blogs, or press releases be accessible to my successors? Will the archaeologists of the future have any hope of penetrating the computer protocols that we have today?

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