The digital dark age is coming.

Want to make sure your photographs survive your lifetime? Print them out. Vast amounts of digital information may soon be lost in a new digital dark age. That’s the warning Google executive and Internet pioneer Vint Cerf has given.

The ‘dark ages’ often refers to a period of time in Europe in which relatively few historical records survived. This caused that section of history to be hidden from the view of modern historians. At the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Vint Cerf warned that a second dark age may be looming on the horizon. This is due to the fact that so much of our data is now kept in digital formats.

If we don’t find a solution, our 21st Century will be an information black hole. We think about digitizing things because we think we will preserve them, but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps, those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse, than the artifacts that we digitized. We have various formats for digital photographs and movies and those formats need software to correctly render those objects. Sometimes the standards we use to produce those objects fade away and are replaced by other alternatives and then software that is supposed to render images can’t render older formats, so the images are no longer visible. This is starting to happen to people who are saving a lot of their digital photographs because they are just files of bits. The file system doesn’t know how to interpret them, you need software to do that. Now you’ve lost the photograph in effect. If there are pictures that you really really care about then creating a physical instance is probably a good idea. Print them out, literally. Backing up photos on multiple drives and discs may be a good option for the short term, but these digital storage methods all suffer from the same flaw in the long run: the gradual decay of data over many years. – Vint Cerf 

Below are my own thoughts on preserving portrait photography in the digital dark age:

Vulnerabilities of digital photo files

Personal storage

  • Memory storage devices, such as hard disk drives and memory sticks, can and will fail. They are not designed or guaranteed to last a lifetime. In most cases the first indication that a drive is failing is when data has already been lost. By that time it can be too late.
  • More expensive network attached storage devices can be purchased that utilise multiple disks and redundancy technology. This can be used to mitigate the impact of a failing disk or two. However, digital photos can still be deleted or over-written by human error, or by malicious software.
  • Technology devices are attractive to thieves. This applies not only your desktop computer or laptop/tablet, but also external hard disks, and backup hard disks.
  • The stored location of digital photos, and the passwords required to access encrypted storage devices, can be forgotten. There is also the risk they may not be passed onto family members before the demise or estrangement of the owner.

Cloud storage

  • You may think the answer is to outsource the responsibility by uploading your photos to a social networking site or a cloud storage service. With these options your photos are stored on a cluster of servers by big name IT companies. Photos saved to social media are low quality copies, and high quality copies uploaded to cloud services can be a pricey option.
  • There is no guarantee that these companies or their services will be around in decades to come. What happens when your user account gets hacked? What happens when you miss the emails requesting a response before they migrate your data to future replacement technologies and services?
  • Locations and passwords for cloud services may also be a risk if they are not passed onto family members before the demise or estrangement of the account owner.

Digital copies (back-ups)

  • Making digital copies using any storage method also has risks, and can often lead to a false sense of security. Because personal data is constantly changing and growing, copies need to be created on a frequent and regular basis. If the original source of data becomes comprised, and the issue isn’t recognised before the copies are made, then the copies themselves cannot be used to recover missing or corrupted data.

EMP damage

  • Electro Magnetic Pulse (EMP), is a short burst of electromagnetic energy. EMP energy can be transferred by a variety of forms including electric fields; magnetic fields; electromagnetic radiation; electrical conduction; or solar magnetic flares.
  • Many people protect against the most commonly considered form ‘electrical conduction’ by placing surge protectors between their computers or network attached storage devices and their main power supply. However, very few consider taking precautions against the other forms of EMP.
  • A deliberate EMP weapon attack would have a massive and potentially catastrophic impact on a wide geographic area. Fortunately, for the time being, it is thought this risk is to have a very low probability of occurring.

Professional photography

  • If you hired a professional photographer you may think “I’ll just ask for another copy”. But what if the photographer has changed professions and you can’t locate them; they are deceased; or they simply don’t have a copy of the files anymore? Many photographers will try to maintain a digital archive on a best endeavours basis to accommodate the potential of future print sales. However, a professional photographer has no legal obligation to maintain a copy of your images once they have been delivered to you.

Technology obsolescence

  • File formats and storage media types might not be compatible with technology of the future. Either you or the next generation may not have the hardware or software required for accessing and reading the data that was saved and stored in previous decades. Already, there would be many households for whom receiving digital photo files on DVD would be pointless because their computers no longer incorporate optical drives.
  • From personal experience, it wasn’t that long ago that I had hard disk drives with SCSI or PATA connectors that became obsolete because they wouldn’t connect to computers with SATA interfaces. I already have digital files from my early digital SLR cameras that the current version of Photoshop will no longer open. The software framework I used for my previous blog became unsupported, and many of the photos were no longer showing.
  • What will the technology look like in 10, 25, 50, 100 years from now?

The solution

There is a simple answer to the threat of the digital dark age for personal portrait photography. Utilize the strengths of both digital and physical printed photos to maintain your personal photo library and archives:

  • Use digital photos for temporary sharing with the online world. Don’t rely on them alone to preserve important photos through your lifetime and future generations.
  • Create physical copies of important photos using photographic materials that will last. Share them in the physical world with loved ones.

Feel free to comment or ask questions in the comment section below.

Related articles:

Planned  articles coming soon:

  • The best way to print your photos. This may include a comparison of print services available.
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