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Digital memories: cheap to take, cheaper to lose

The return of the Systems guys vs Web monkeys debate

By Andrew Orlowski, 10 Mar 2005

Letters The consequences of the dotcom bubble - being remembered this week five years on from the start of the crash - aren't just financial. The largest loss of wealth in human history created a wasteland of dead pages and broken links. Now many of the same Dotcom People are back, persuading us to trust them with our most valuable digital memories. And judging from the rhetoric alone, nothing has been learnt.

Preserving stuff on the internet isn't a given, as we discussed with David Rosenthal, here. Because of carelessness, corporate burn-out, or government pressure, material gets lost. Sometimes material disappears as if by magic. But there is no magic - just the usual suspects. Rosenthal, an alumnus of Sun and Nvidia, has spent five years devising a decentralized peer to peer system LOCKSS for librarians and archivists. It's a system that ensures documents are preserved through redundancy. But it may be five years, he told us, before the protocols are scalable enough for such a system to be used by you and me.

But Rosenthal is old school. He belongs to the generation of "pessimistic engineers" who worried about things going wrong. Was there a cultural divide between the systems guys and the new dot com kids, for whom 1995 really was Year Zero, we wondered:

"...This, we suggested, was a consequence of the web generation of developers not taking data integrity seriously enough. When you meet database designers or real system people, data integrity is priorities One, Two and Three," we wrote recently.

Reader Carson Harding rose to the challenge.

It's quite unfair to tar all web coders with the dotcom brush, we might add. It's probably only a small minority of few Perl coders, mostly USA-ian, who get so excited about mandelbrots, emergent ant farms and the self-healing hive mind of the interweb that they become very careless with your data.

Maybe, Carson suggests, we should take a bit of responsibility. Perhaps we don't really care about the consequences of the technology we use.

As a, I suppose, "real system person", I am constantly amazed by how people look after their digital media, even when they are confronted with its fragility. When I'm not being a system person, I'm often taking pictures. I'm still using film, which I scan, retouch in Photo Shop, and print on an inkjet. The film part is mostly due to cost: I haven't saved up enough to buy the digital that can replace it yet. But at the moment, in the event of digital failure I yet retain the negatives, and can redo my work if need be.

But going all digital is getting close for me, and has great workflow and creative advantages. The one thing that scares me is then every can be lost to a power surge or equipment failure or theft. (A lot more likely than the house fire that would currently wipe it all out.) My current plan is to maintain all data ever spinning, ever growing. I will backup to media available at the time for disaster recovery only, with no expectation of archiving.

So for the moment, for cost effectiveness this means an external hard drive that I store at someone else's house. Everytime I back up to it, it is tested. I may add another hard drive and alternate, I may switch to other media at some point, but my plan is that everything will always there online where it is accessible and can/will be converted when file formats change, and there will be offsite copies for recovery. (There are also multiple other copies of small set of really important things, etc.)

There are three things about this:

  • 1) It requires effort, planning, and future work adapting it as things change. I already tend to think about this sort of thing, so it's not too hard for me;
  • 2) Even given that I tend to think about this sort of thing and plan for it, it's a pain;
  • 3) Most people do not think about it at all; and they don't want to.

"Various neophiles I know seem to keep their material scattered across various machines, and copy it to DVD or CD when they think of it. (They also don't pay attention to the quality of the DVDs and CDs they buy.) They treat their other data similarily. When I mention risks, and suggest other ways or doing things, I get the same looks and responses as when I suggest that having a firewall between their Windows machines and the Internet might be a really good idea.

"(In both regards I have much better luck with complete neophytes, to them I sound with some authority. Most of the gadget geeks know their way around Windows far better than I do, yet have no real idea of my professional responsibilities and concerns, and so I think they discount my words.)

"But back to the topic: their CDs can't be read after a while (or perhaps even at the start, it's unlikely they tested them after writing them), their hard-drives crash, their computers succumb to viruses and theft. Even their prints fade. (I went inkjet when I could get a good pigment-based printer. And even then my data will still be around to print it again if I need to.)

"My conclusion: they don't care. Or they don't care enough to make the effort. Memories (or in this case, mementos) are not like money. People will happily benefit the producers of a technology for the chance to play with the new toy, for the convenience. The object that the tool produces has at most a quickly passing sentimental value. I don't think this is new. My mother-in-law is not in the digital age, she appears to assign great value to her pictures of family and family history, but I discovered that she throws her negatives away once she has the prints. No (good) enlargements can be done, no picture replaced if it is damaged.

"This shocks me, but really, as the old saying goes, "actions speak louder then words". None of all this river of pictures is of real value to them, it's just a flood of ephemera. Perhaps my pictures only matter to me because I am: 1) a professional pack-rat, used to looking after other people's data that does matter to them, and 2) I'm trying in the photos I do produce to make something worth keeping on its own, and therefore preserving my attempts matters to me.

"From the things I've read here and there, the only photo people who really care about digital preservation are the people who depend on it, professional photographers and archivists, and a very few keen amateurs.

"Perhaps the rest find the current online services exactly tailored to their requirements?

- Carson Harding

Which gives us a lot of food for thought. Yesterday's gee-whizz dotcom types are beside themselves with excitement about Flickr and similar services. But rarely a moment's attention is given to the long term consequences. If we really are walking into the future blind, with the risk that no family will have a photo album in 50 years, then the problem requires urgent attention. ®

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