A digital dark age?

There are several boxes of photographs in my house. There’s an even larger collection stored by my mother-in-law who inherited her mother’s boxes. There are pictures of beautiful sunsets, babies, school pictures, animals, flowers, gardens and just about everything and everybody else. In some of the boxes, ancient photos of unsmiling ancestors, neighbors and distant relatives hide, unlabeled and mysterious.

In the past when you got a roll of film processed, all the pictures were printed unless you asked to have any blank negatives or overexposed frames skipped. Even if you gave away all the prints or lost them, you still had the negatives that could be reprinted.

Since the demise of film photography and the rise of digital cameras, my photo collection has moved from boxes to the hard drive of my computer. I always intend to delete the fuzzy, out of focus, badly exposed, crookedly shot snapshots. That rarely happens as I move pictures from my camera’s memory to the computer. I’m usually in a hurry because the card is full and I need to take new pictures right now. I just move everything. My computer’s virtual picture box looks just like the real ones.

Not long ago Dr Vinton Cerf who is said to have “invented” the internet and now works for Google, warned that we could find ourselves in a “digital dark age” because our stored data may become inaccessible as technology evolves and our data is stored  in formats that cannot be opened by new and developing technology. He suggests that we make prints of our precious photos…and store them in boxes in the basement, I assume. Dr. Cerf fears most of our documents, photos, and letters will disappear and the twenty-first century will become an historical blank space when all our saved data ceases to be accessible by ever newer technology.

How important is it for all of us to save gigabits of data? In ten or fifteen or one hundred years, who will care? If digital photos are not labeled will it matter that they are saved? Most of us don’t take photos worth saving beyond sharing them on Facebook. Certainly they don’t warrant being archived for posterity.

I understand the problem. I began writing this column in 2003. I wrote it on a old Apple computer using an old version of Appleworks. Then I got a newer computer which fortunately could still open the older versions of Apple’s word processing documents. I’ve updated my computer since then and have even more recently updated it’s operating system. My Pages software will no longer open old Appleworks documents nor any old Microsoft Works or Word documents. I have found an open source software that will still open most of my old documents, but I’m guessing that it is only a matter of time until that will no longer work.

When computers became small enough to fit on our desks and then into our pockets, we were assured the technology would save us time. We were told it would save paper and trees. We were told it would simplify keeping records safe for posterity.

The “digital dark ages” seems to be another of those unintended consequences. Not only did we run far more paper through our printers than anticipated, computers now monopolize most of our waking hours. If we have any spare time, apparently we should be printing out all our digital photos for our grandkids. We should be installing new software to increase our internet security and converting all our old files to the latest versions or keep them in an old fashioned file cabinet.

There might be a bright side. Perhaps there is a whole generation of politicians who would like their digital photos, emails and statements made in the heat of debate to disappear into cyber oblivion…and soon.

Copyright © 2016 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains