Four Steps You Can Take to Avoid the “Digital Dark Age”

January 2, 2018

By Greg Scoblete

As 2018 dawns, you may think there’s no more room in your head for something new to worry about, but spare some space for this from PRI:

“We may [one day] know less about the early 21st century than we do about the early 20th century,” says Rick West, who manages data at Google. “The early 20th century is still largely based on things like paper and film formats that are still accessible to a large extent; whereas, much of what we’re doing now — the things we’re putting into the cloud, our digital content — is born digital. It’s not something that we translated from an analog container into a digital container, but, in fact, it is born, and now increasingly dies, as digital content, without any kind of analog counterpart.”

Computer and data specialists refer to this era of lost data as the “digital dark ages.” Other experts call the 21st century an “informational black hole,” because the digital information we are creating right now may not be readable by machines and software programs of the future. All that data, they worry — our century’s digital history — is at risk of never being recoverable.

Photographers are (or should be) acutely aware of this challenge for their own digital work. In fact, there are two inter-related questions that loom over your files: how long will the physical media you’re storing digital photos on last and will your image files be readable on the machines of the future?

There’s no easy solution to this dilemma. Hard drives will hardly last a decade, let alone a lifetime. Flash memory may eek out a few more years but may not endure a generation (if that). As the PRI piece notes, scientists and archivists have placed their trust in magnetic tape in the short run and in DNA (!) in the long run for storing large volumes of information.

Without access to either high capacity magnetic tape or DNA, what’s a photographer to do?

We spoke with a number of experts for a 2015 story on long-term archiving. While opinions naturally varied, there were a few basic pieces of advice you can follow to ensure your images won’t fall victim to any forthcoming digital dark age:

Print them. Properly produced and cared-for, inkjet prints can last for 200 years, or more. They look better than DNA when hung on a wall, too.

Store files as JPEGs. The format is so ubiquitous it’s likely to be machine readable well into the future. The open-source DNG format is also a good choice.

Preserve your metadata. Ensuring a photo has accurate and thorough metadata is critical to digital photo preservation because it enables future programs to find and organize a photographic collection. It also ensures critical copyright data travels with the images as they migrate from old storage solutions (like hard drives) to new ones that haven’t even been conceived of yet. The XMP format, which like DNG is open source, is a good option for writing metadata.

Follow the famous “3-2-1 Rule.” That’s three copies of a file, stored in two different places with one of those locations off-site.

Don’t Miss:

In the Digital Age, Longevity Is No Sure Thing

Great New Storage Options for Pro Photographers

How Long Do Photo Prints Really Last?