The Digital Trap: Or Why your grandchildren won't be looking at pictures of you in 50 years

Most people know and appreciate the pleasures of looking through old photographs. We’ve all pored over grainy black and white pictures of grandparents, or laughed at the suspect fashion sense of our parents when they were growing up.

However, historians and archivists have noted a growing problem. With the advent of digital technology we no longer retain and preserve our photographic history. This problem can be linked to three main issues:

Information Lifespan:

Many people will conscientiously back up their digital images to some kind of storage media. However, as the table below shows, most digital media have only a fraction of the lifespan of the more traditional formats. Unless you are very disciplined about transferring images to new disks, you are likely to get a nasty surprise next time you try to retrieve some of your precious photos.

The problem is complicated yet again by the development of “floating” storage services such as email or social media sites like Facebook. Most people change profiles or email addresses every few years, yet few take the time to retrieve their contents.

To solve this problem, the truly masochistic could certainly download the pictures from their social media account. But how many of us really have the patience to Right Click and Save every picture we have ever uploaded since high school. How much more tempting to simply jettison those images to the dusts of history?

Medium Lifespan (Years) Medium Lifespan
CD-R 10 Archival Paper 500+ years 
DVD-R 2-15 years Standard Printed Photographs 50+ years 
USB 10 Canvas prints or similar 75-200 
External Hard Drive 2-10 years
Average Lifespan of an Email address 3 years 

Data Portability

An even bigger problem is the bewildering array of storage formats and mechanisms developed to support digital data. As programs change, data stored in one format is no longer able to be retrieved in newer versions of the same program. For instance, try using the latest version of Photoshop to open up the collage you painstakingly created way back in 1999. Or how about opening up the priceless family photos that your Great Aunt scanned into an early version of WordPerfect?

The problem is not limited to individuals, already large companies and organisations have had to scramble to retrieve priceless data stored in digital archives from the 80s and 90s.

Unless you are willing to spend a few weeks every year migrating your data into newer improved formats you are likely to end up disappointed when you go back to write that family history.

The temporary nature of digital data

Sadly, the insubstantial nature of digital data can encourage us to make rash decisions. Who would consider shredding a pile of 200 printed photos on a whim? But I bet you wouldn't think twice about deleting a directory on your computer with the same number of pictures. When our cameras can produce endless pictures for almost zero cost we no longer place the same importance on a single image.

What does it mean for our grandchildren?

With the ease and convenience of digital storage, printing pictures can seem old fashioned and wasteful. However, it also means that we are losing a priceless part of our history and background. In the past, pictures were lovingly preserved (no matter how out of focus or how much we disliked our expression in the shot). What will be left for our grandchildren to look at (and laugh at)?

The Digital Trap: Or Why your grandchildren won't be looking at pictures of you in 50 years The Digital Trap: Or Why your grandchildren won't be looking at pictures of you in 50 years Reviewed by Unknown on June 24, 2011 Rating: 5
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