information storage

Making your pictures last forever


How best to store and preserve information isn’t exactly a new problem. Yes, right now the question is more prescient because there’s more information floating around our world than there ever has been, but history bears out that information storage and loss is something that we’ve battled with for millennia, for as long as we’ve had language, in fact.

The Minoans might’ve thought that they’d done a great job of recording their society using the Linear A script on clay tablets, except that the language died out and we can’t decipher it. We’ve still got the tablets, but not a clue what they say. You never know, the key to Linear A might have been in the Great Library at Alexandria, but the library’s contents, mostly written on papyrus and parchment and almost certainly including works that we don’t even know about, were lost in a massive conflagration. In one instance we have the data but not the language; in another we still have the language, but not the data.

In the age of digital media, those same two problems still present themselves. We might lose the data, or we might lose the ability to decode it. You never know, we might lose both.

There’s been oodles of column-space devoted to discussing the most secure methods for storing digital images, and how many backups you need and in how many forms; I’ve recently embarked on archiving a not-insubstantial project, and one of the first discussions that I had with the records office concerned the most appropriate format in which to save the information; the conundrum of what to do about artefacts that are on deteriorating original media and we’re struggling to preserve owing to copyright concerns needs to be solved pretty quickly. Chances of a simple, easy solution to these problems? I’d put the odds at slim-to-none.

So when I read the following statement in a press release, I couldn’t help but feel that it was a bit disingenuous: ‘…customers will now have the option to take their media from analog to digital to the [insert company name here] cloud, ensuring that photos and videos truly last forever.’ No, it wasn’t just PR hyperbole; at least not when it was followed by ‘… [insert company name here] can give you the peace of mind that your photos and videos are secure and always accessible.’

I remember seven inch floppy discs from when I was in primary school, about 25 years ago; since then we’ve raced through three-and-half inch floppies, CDs, USB sticks, and now we’re into cloud storage. Do we really think that this is where it ends? I’m not convinced.

Forever is a very long time.

And it was only today that a British on-line image storage company, Fotopic, went into liquidation. No one seems to know for sure how many images are now trapped in the aether, inaccessible to the people who stored them there, but estimates are between 30,000 and 70,000. One hopes that these customers had the good sense to make backups elsewhere.

So forgive me, perhaps, if I’m a bit sceptical about the security of on-line or cloud-based information storage firms and if I have a moment of nostalgia for analogue cameras, which give you the original and the backup as soon as you develop the film. Even so, they’ll end up as dust one day, just as the gorgeous frescoes excavated from the ash and mud at Pompeii and Herculaneum will, too.

What it comes down to is that I don’t think that you can make your pictures last forever; it’s not the way that the universe works. Empires come and go and languages fade away; the best that you can do is to give them as many opportunities to survive fire and theft and hard drive failure and loss of language and format shifts and magnetic electron realignment as you can. So have them printed, burn them to disc, save them on two separate hard drives, email them to yourself, and hope for the best.

You see, nothing lasts forever.

(All the images were taken at the remains of the Roman city of Volubilis in Morocco.)