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Avoiding a hole in history and a digital dark age

We must do more to counter the fleeting nature of digital, to ensure our descendants can explore the past

One of the things I most distinctly remember in the period shortly after my granddad passed away was my dad sorting through tins of old photos.

My grandparents had quite a collection of fading sepia shots squirrelled away, and as my dad worked through them, the dust made his eyes stream as much as the memories — but the important thing was that the photos still existed and were accessible to those who cared. Future generations may not be so lucky.

Internet pioneer and now Google vice-president Vint Cerf has argued that we’re facing a forgotten generation — or even a forgotten century — because of our increasing reliance on digital. He’s right, and it’s ironic that today’s people are the most photographed ever (I’ve lost count of how many photos we have of our youngling doing the things younglings do), but they’re all sitting in silos of some kind, be it a smartphone, or a hard drive, or some kind of online service.

The problem is, these platforms and technologies have no long-term future.

That might sound alarmist, but even though it’s impossible to predict how technology will evolve, history has taught us no gadget or service lasts forever — or even for that long. We can easily read a book printed centuries ago (assuming we can understand the text) and admire a painting composed long before anything approaching modern photography arrived.

Yet digital files stored carefully on various shapes and sizes of cartridge and disk are accessible only as long as the hardware exists and the media remains in a good state of repair. Even if you diligently store your content in multiple places, in formats that look destined to last, there’s no guarantee you’ll be able to access and view any of it in ten years, let alone your descendants happily being able to work their way through it all in 50.

Worse, many deal with data in a rather more nonchalant manner than this — you often hear about people saying their smartphones are ‘full’, blocking more photos from being taken, but also suggesting they haven’t safeguarded those they already have.

There’s a niggling sense that perhaps none of this really matters to people that prefer immediacy and instant gratification rather than carefully ensuring what they produce has some kind of future.

For a while, as media became cheaper and more accessible, people tended to become hoarders of information. But younger generations have no truck with stacks of vinyl, shelves of books, or regularly thumbed photograph albums. They eschew permanence for convenience and appear perfectly comfortable with the transient nature of information and media. To them, this is all perfectly normal.

But fast-forward decades, and what’s significant only becomes apparent when it might be too late to save it. Preservation is therefore key. Cerf’s line of thinking is a kind of ‘digital vellum’, where hardware and software is somehow preserved so it never becomes obsolete — countless cloud-based servers housing snapshots of data in time, to recreate the past in the future.

For individuals, such goals are of course impossible, but with files we care about and might want to pass on to future generations, perhaps we should instead think more of the past than the future, bringing back print. It might seem archaic and rather extravagant to spend 50 quid or so on a professionally printed and bound hardback book that contains your favourite photographs and words from recent months and years.

However, at least those chosen images will escape any digital dark age, because that book’s likely to last a whole lot longer than the smartphone you used to take the photos and any online service used to store them.