Losing our digital memory

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CNET Editor

Lexy spent her formative years taking a lot of photos and dreaming in technicolour. Nothing much has changed now she's covering all things photography related for CNET.


Photographs are one of the closest links we have to our own memory.

Storing photos used to be relatively easy in the days of analog: piles of negatives and prints housed in shoe boxes or a multitude of photo albums and picture frames would be a mainstay in every household. Photos weren't infallible, though, with issues like fungus and fading an issue.

(I uploaded all my photos to the web in one step image by Daniel Oines, CC2.0)

Digital photography, on the other hand, demands a slightly different mindset. It makes us change how and where we store our visual memories. Arguably, the most important images that photographers are making today are stored on hard disks, memory cards, USB sticks, NAS units and online sharing services like Facebook.

But what would happen if something suddenly rendered all these images obsolete? The age-old question of "What would you save first if your house was burning down?" doesn't really extend to non-physical formats like digital images and video. What does the 21st century family save in this situation?

Though the humble JPEG format has been around since the early 1990s, many other image and file formats have fallen by the wayside. That's not even taking into consideration the demise of physical formats that hold these files, including floppy discs, optical discs and the fallibility of media we use today like the humble CD or DVD.

Digital obsolescence

Photographers who shoot in RAW, an image format that stores all the data that the camera's sensor sees, face a growing issue in regards to maintaining their digital files. As each manufacturer uses a different format to encode RAW images, future iterations of photo editing programs may not be able to read them.

Digital Memory

(Credit: Craig Simms/CBSi)

Open source provides one solution, as formats such as Adobe DNG (digital negative) are able to be read by a wide range of programs. Even so, the process of constantly re-saving photographs from one format to another is arduous and may be beyond the reach of the home photographer. A select few digital SLRs can save images in the DNG format, but it's far from widespread in the industry. Often, it's not until someone tries to access an old file unsuccessfully that the issue of digital obsolescence rears its head.

Peter Shaw, manager of National Preservation Digitisation Projects, at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra, faces similar issues on a much larger scale. "Original photographic materials are stored in conditioned environments that ideally provide low temperature and relative humidity to extend their useful life for the long term," Shaw said. "In the past there were limited programs to create preservation and access photographic duplicates."

Since beginning the digitisation of photographic records in 2003, the Archives has also had various practices in place to help preserve digital photos as effectively as possible. Firstly, when digitising the original image, a master TIFF file is created which can be used to reproduce an 8x10-inch image at 400dpi. Two smaller JPEG files are then created for web viewing.

House of Osti

House of Osti and Prue Acton fashions, 1975, an example of one of millions of images stored at the National Archives of Australia.
(Credit: National Archives of Australia)

As for native digital images, they are stored in a digital archive using custom open-source software to manage and track the life cycle of the files.

This makes perfect sense when keeping track of a collection as extensive and as important to the national interest as that housed at the National Archives, but what about everyday photographers and families?

(Top image credit: Photo Prints at SFAI by Paul Schultz, CC2.0)

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darylcheshire posted a comment   

CDs suffer a disease where the sub-surface material bubbles rendering the disk unreadable. The metallic ones seem to fare better than the blue and purple disks.

How will magnetic media store over the next few decades? I have a theory that cosmic rays or background radiation will erode the alignment of magnetic fields on hard disks. How many use 20 year old hard disks? Or store them in a shoe box?
What if they are dropped when being moved? Would SSDs have similar issues? Will an SSD last for decades?

Will the future come up with solid storage hologram WORM drives?

I suppose JPEGS will always be readable just like TXT files.

Even if storage is perfected, we may still have a dark age of 20 years of magnetic media which might erode over time unless there is a culture of converting from magnetic media to some sort of WORM drive.

My concern with the cloud is that companies go bust and then the data is wiped by some faceless tech who's boss is trying to cut costs. Or they suffer some glitch which has recently happened.

What if a person dies and no longer pays his cloud subscription?

Maybe there could be a scheme like the Google cache where data centres are always upgraded and will eventually invest in some sort of non-eroding el-hugo solid state drive array.

As long as we keep the topic alive.

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