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Terry Prone: Letters and photo albums may be more advanced than your smartphone


Vint Cerf

Vint Cerf

Vint Cerf

The little boy whose baby brother suddenly sinks his teeth into him knows it’s permanent.

The PR woman who tweeted something stupid, just before she got onto a plane headed for South Africa, knows it’s permanent.

We’ve all seen the little boy howling “Charlie bit my finger! It hurt!” He’s been howling for a couple of years, now, on YouTube, racking up millions of viewers.

It probably doesn’t bother him that much that the footage is likely to up there forever, so that when he and Charlie are old, it will still be there.

But the woman who suggested she wouldn’t get AIDS in Africa – a news story which hit the headlines a year or so ago – undoubtedly wishes her mistake was not so permanent. It cost her a career.

We associate mistakes we make online to be direly permanent. That’s why it is astonishing to find a Google bigwig warning of the exact opposite.

Vint Cerf is bothered by the impermanence of much of what most of us assume will be around forever.


Last week he warned the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting of the possibility of a “forgotten generation, or even a forgotten century”.

His warning is about the speed of technical development: everything associated with computers and the Internet gets faster and smaller every year.

The downside of that, he suggests, is that the machines capable of displaying an archive of data, right now, will not be around in a few years’ time. Nor will the software to make the data readable or viewable.

That happened to early adopters of reading devices; the ones that came along before the Kindle and the Nook. We bought the technology. We bought the books.

Then the publishers abandoned the software, thereby rendering the hardware about as useful as a Telex.

Cerf’s comments are a timely reminder not to put too much faith in computer or online memory. Unfortunately, it’s a reminder that may have come too late. We’re already pretty far down the road.

Take, for example, the family album. The very concept may be new to those under 30, but time was when every family had an album with a padded cover and stiff grey pages.

On each of the pages were photographs, held in place by little frilly yokes gummed to the base page, which had a slot for the corners of each photograph.

The photograph album was part of the blood stream of every family in Ireland just a few decades ago.

Grandfathers would take grandchildren on their knee and take them through the lives of their parents, picture by picture.

The album could be used to remind everybody of a happy event in family history, or to prove a point and win a bet about the height or hair-colour of someone long emigrated.

It was about active sharing, not passive storage, since each page, as it turned, evoked songs and stories of the past.


Now, photographs get taken on phones and lost when the phone falls into a toilet or off a windowsill. Or –if it’s a wedding – they arrive on a CD or a link as a TV show, complete with sound effects, audio clips, slo-mos and titles.

Through our addiction to the digital world, we may be losing a deep and detailed part of our collective memory.

In one area, we have already lost it. The history of the First World War was best told through the letters of soldiers on the battle front, hand-written and tear-stained.

Those letters were lovingly preserved by their recipients, because those letters were so precious.

But we’ve largely stopped writing personal letters, replacing them with texts and emails, believing the latter to be just as permanent.

But, according to Vince Cerf, we shouldn’t assume that letters or photographs on our devices will be around forever. We should take his advice.

“If there are photos you really care about,” Cert says bluntly, “print them out.”