If a photograph is worth 1,000 words … well, then, we need to talk.
Those digital photos you’ve been happily snapping? They’ll soon be history.
Not the good kind of history, mind you — the kind that’s treasured for generations, the kind you’d run back into a burning house to rescue for posterity.
They will be history … as in “toast.”
Never have so many people taken so many pictures so quickly. One industry source, Infostream, estimates that 2017’s total will be 1.2 trillion — up 100 billion or so from the year just past. If every pixel were the size of an egg, our world would already be buried beneath an epic omelette.
Instead, of course, the total volume of all those digital pix is more fleeting than a notion. That’s true right now, when they reside, lighter than air, on iPhones and tablets, on computer drives and memory cards, on CDs and USBs and your long-sidelined first Mac that you’ve stashed away down in the basement.
On a day that’s coming sooner than you think, 99 percent of our digital memories are almost certain to be gone. The ease of catching those memorable moments right now will be more than matched by their quiet stealth as they slip permanently out of sight.
Unless we do something now!
Back in the day when cameras just sat there until you fed them film, family photos hung around to nag you. I always admired the folks — almost always supermoms — who dealt with them in a timely manner, filing them in albums with dutiful notes of who, what, where and when. Most of us, truth be told, stowed the little packets of fresh prints in a drawer or cupboard or shoebox, along with our good intentions. Someday we’d organize and label them. Someday we’d take the time to select the best and discard the duds. Someday … we’d get around to it when we had time.
I happen to have a box like that right here on a shelf in my office. It’s been making me feel guilty for decades. Someday, I swear, I’ll organize those precious memories. In the meantime, I’m well aware of where they lurk and admonish me.
Not so, the virtual mountain of digital family photos you and I’ve been snapping for the last 10 years. In technology we trust — far too much, as it turns out. They’re so convenient to show off on screens — scrolling through that smartphone in your purse, emailing images to distant relatives, sharing droll views on Facebook and Instagram. Some of us faithfully save them to flash drives or DVDs or, more recently, the mysterious online cloud.
There’s a chance — albeit slim — you’re a left-brained type who dutifully sorts and labels digital files. More likely, you keep taking pictures until the memory card is full, then buy a new and bigger one.
Either way, it’s high time to take a longer look … before it’s too late. Technology relentlessly marches on. (Remember slide projectors, home movies and videotapes?) Don’t entrust your memories alone to pixels.
My photographer husband and I discovered this in our usual manner — the hard way. Russ went digital very early in the game. That means we’ve lived through nearly two decades of clever high-tech strategies to preserve images in the post-film era — none of which has lived up to its confident promise.
We’ve backed up files to floppies. Hard drives have multiplied. We’ve embraced dead ends like Zip drives. We’ve invested in mammoth RAID systems with capacities soon too small for the next generation of photo files. We’ve written literally thousands of CDs and DVDs — sometimes labeling them with precision, often not so much. We’ve added externals to our network. We’ve archived thumb drives. We subscribe to Google Drive, Carbonite, Dropbox and more.
And I can say one thing with absolute certainty. Not one of them can be trusted. If it’s electronic, it’s not a question of whether it will fail. It’s just a matter of when … not to mention the ghostly hulls of obsolete technologies that wash up on the shore.
Beware the march of progress. We were initially assured that writable CDs and DVDs would survive forever. Nope. In practice, we’ve found a not-insignificant failure rate for disks no more than three to five years old; for older ones, it’s dramatically higher. Unlike commercially manufactured music and movie disks, the home-brewed variety has turned out to be vulnerable to all kinds of woes, from an off-kilter laser whose quirks turned files into Sanskrit to so-called “CD rot,” deterioration of the mysterious layer of goop on which data is inscribed. Meanwhile, computer manufacturers have decided to doom onboard CD drives to the same boneyard where all those floppy drives moulder.
So how about that much-ballyhooed cloud? It sounds so heavenly — so cumulus. Behind every invisible Internet storage service lies a corporation launched in delirious optimism. Try googling “cloud storage” and “bankrupt” to see how that can turn out.
Depressing, isn’t it? But true. The same Grim Reaper that doomed your folks’ home movies and your own videotapes is coming for your photos.
There is a practical alternative, though, to hang onto your memories despite whatever imaging technology has in store. Keep on making those digital backups, of course. (Cross your fingers!) But take a side trip, too, down Memory Lane to the tried-and-true strategy your parents would approve:
Print those pictures. Right now.
It doesn’t really matter how you do it. Upload them to an online photo service, drive them to Target, or organize real photo books on Shutterfly or Snapfish. It’s all good. Despite the dazzle of the digital revolution, it turns out that a tangible, touchable image is still your most secure option. You know you’ll have it safe, no matter what high-tech burps and giggles lie in store.
Real photographs, after all, are nice to have around. You can display them to impress friends with your children’s adorability. You can win points with Grandma by helping her decorate her refrigerator door. You can stockpile them for that traditional photo display when your baby someday graduates from high school.
And, failing even that, you can stash them in that shoebox in your closet. They’ll give you something fun to do someday. Maybe after you retire.