Google’s Vice President, Vint Cerf, has warned that the 20th century may lose a vast proportion of its recorded history, when images and other documents are no longer readable far in the future – see article.
I am not sure that this is a problem, for the average person, in their lifetime. I do, however, think it could be a very serious problem for those who outlive us. This may just seem like scaremongering, as Google has a vested interest in selling cloud storage and contingency solutions, but is there real substance to what he says and ‘anonymous citizen’ level? I think so and here is why:
Lets say for example that you hang up your camera today at 70, but live another 20 years. 20 years after your death, your children happen across a hard drive in the attic: what happens next?
- They have no way of easily reviewing its contents as it will not be compatible from a hardware perspective with anything they are using, even if the software is readily available (which it wont be for the average consumer). People often take the easy road and wrangling with 40 year old technology is a highway to hell.
- The hard drive will probably be non-functional from a mechanical perspective. Solid state storage may also be non-operable due to 40 years of storage, temperature changes, etc.
- Who the heck knows that that black box is anyway? Darth Vader’s costume in the original Star Wars was more sophisticated looking than the average hard drive from today.
I think its important to separate out the maximum potential for data continuity today for material already recognised as having future importance from the realistic continuity afforded to material that is not recognised as having value today. The latter is arguably far more important in the future than the former. Certainly for those close to you it will be.
So what does this mean? For me it is simple: make prints. Then make more prints. Then share them, give them to relatives, put them in archival boxes and let people know what they are and where they are. Nobody needs to be a genius to open a box and lay their eyes upon what then stares them in the face. Its so simple, so why do so few people print regularly in the digital age? Never mind future generations, I have never come across an editor, publisher or gallery owner who would not rather (on a quality vs quality basis) view physical prints. Sure, for review and selection they may want a quick digital slideshow, but to really look, they never do. Neither do I, when sitting in my living room with house guests who are looking over a portfolio of my prints.
How does $20 a month sound? I reckon after 10 years you’ll be looking at about 250-500 good-sized prints for that. I can think of few things offering anywhere near the same value; to me, to friends, to loved ones and strangers whose knowledge of me will be limited to looking upon a print I made without knowledge of their existence.
Photographs do not have to win awards or sell for thousands to matter; besides, surely we should allow future generations to sort the wheat from the chaff and ascribe value as they see fit? It is incumbent upon us to at least give them that opportunity, as they did for us.
A true gift is defined as something that is given with no expectation of receiving something in return. This is a gift we photographers can all offer with ease.