The days of digging through your parents’ old photographs are long gone. The next generation will never know the pleasure of flicking through dusty old photo albums, or rifling through boxes and boxes of snaps from holidays passed. Almost all of our personal photographs are stored on hard drives, online in cloud storage, or on social media sites such as Facebook. The question is, how long will our digital media survive? If your hard drive breaks or the company you are storing your photos with goes under, you risk losing years of precious memories.

In the Dark

Vint Cerf, a Vice-President of Google, has prophesied a “Digital Dark Age” whereby decades of documents and media stored online could be lost. As technology evolves and new software is brought into widespread use, old formats die out. This means that there is a potential for files and media stored in older formats to become unsupported. Think of all those pictures and videos that could be gone completely if they aren’t converted to the latest format!

 
 

Back it Up

Cerf suggested that future generations may not be able to find anything out about us because our data is not accessible. This is a slightly dramatic way of thinking about it, but it is certainly plausible that big cultural events may be misinterpreted or be completely undecipherable due to the amount (or lack thereof) of physical evidence.

"Old formats of documents that we've created or presentations may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backwards compatibility is not always guaranteed.

He also believes that it is time to start preserving data “before they are lost forever”. If this is to happen, it won’t be as simple as just backing up the data and storing it securely. The software (and hardware) used to access these files must also be backed up and preserved too. As technology is progressing so quickly, old file types may become inaccessible as the software used to open them is made redundant.

"What can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is."

Physical Vs. Digital

Although technology is fast moving, it has never been easier to convert old or outdated media into new formats. Backing up digital media should be even easier than scanning old photos, turning film negatives into digital format or converting vinyl records into mp3s. Perhaps physical media will still have a place in the future though. Last year, we wrote about the resurgence of vinyl and the celebration of physical music formats on the annual Record Store Day. Physical formats like vinyl and film negatives provide a superior quality to digital alternatives, so until digital media equals or surpasses that of physical media there will still be a market for it (and therefore a physical document of the time period).

 
 

Keeping in the Picture

This is true of photographs too. While an overwhelming percentage of photographs are now taken and stored digitally, people are still printing out their images to display in frames and, believe it or not, to keep as part of a collection. So perhaps comparing today, where we are able to store and share media in more ways than ever before, to the dark ages is a little pessimistic. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t be vigilant though. Backing up and updating your files to the latest (and most accessible) formats is the best way of ensuring your data’s survival. If you have your pictures stored in an obscure image format or kept in restrictive software, there is a high chance you could lose data if the company goes bust!

This applies to any sized company though, not just small software manufacturers. All of your iTunes media is at risk should Apple collapse, as well as any files stored in the cloud. The likelihood of that happening isn’t very high of course, but spreading your media across different formats and channels is a good way to keep it safe.

Internet of Things

Outdated or unsupported software could put more than just your files at risk too. With The Internet of Things playing an increasing part in how we live day to day, many of our household appliances could face obsolescence in a much shorter time frame. At this year’s CES, Samsung made the bold statement that every single product they release from 2020 will be IoT enabled, meaning interconnectivity and in many cases internet-ready machines. This sets a precedent, and it won’t be long before all manufacturers, no matter how big or small, produce appliances that are IoT ready.

IoT Support

This becomes an issue, as now instead of physical parts needing to be replaced, there is also the matter of software becoming outdated. It may not seem like much of a problem now, however we spoke in a previous blog about how one device missing in the IoT “chain” could cause all sorts of problems for other devices.

If the software used to run one of your appliances becomes outdated and you are unable to update to software which is compatible with your other appliances, it could cost hundreds or thousands of pounds to replace. Windows XP is a recent, high profile piece of software that has had support removed, so it is conceivable that the software used in say, a washing machine, could quickly become obsolete.

 
 

Keeping Up

This interesting (and scary) article from Forbes talks about how fast technology is developing. “The advancement we achieved in the last century will be dwarfed by the speed of change in this one”. That isn’t to say we won’t keep up with it though. As the article points out, we come to expect certain standards of our technology, so much so that it almost becomes natural to us. As things change and media is presented and used in different ways, we will adapt and make the relevant adjustments.

Say Cheese

The main focus should be to create digital formats which can still be accessed in thousands of years and create a system where all formats can easily be updated and stored. We live in a period of time where more photographs are taken than ever before. Not only that, media is shared, copied and seen (and owned) by millions and millions of people. To claim that there will be absolutely no record of this period of time is, quite frankly, absurd!

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