404-life not found: combating the digital dark ages


Take a moment and think about your life… pre-internet.

Hard to remember, isn’t it? Like a growing number of people today, one of the first places I log into when going online is Facebook. It’s almost a natural reflex now when I turn on the computer. It’s even found a way into my face-to-face conversations when discussing other individual’s status updates from that day. I’m sure, like you, a scary amount of my life has become almost entirely digital.

In the 21st century, people practically live and die through electronic means: Texts, email, instant messaging, digital documents, mp3s, blogs, forums, videos, pictures, cell phones. At this moment there are 826 photos on Facebook in which I am tagged. And with one hack of that site, the crash of several key servers or simply the person who posted them deleting the albums that stores them, all those pictures could be gone in an instant. Welcome to the beginning of the Digital Dark Ages.

The average life of a website is 44 to 75 days—just about twice the length of a common houseflies. So don’t count on electronic means like Snapfish or Flickr to stick around forever and safeguard your memories. Rarely do I ever print out those photographic memories. They primarily live a digital life, much like most of us. But why worry? You should worry because the Digital Age makes everything immediate and easy, but also instantly perishable.

Back when information was hard to copy, people valued the copies and took care of them. Now, copies are so common as to be considered worthless, and very little attention is given to preserving them over the long term.” – Supercomputer designer Danny Hillis

In 1844, Samuel Morse sent the first telegram. It said, “What hath God wrought?” The first email was sent about 35 years ago. What did it say? Good luck finding out because no one really knows for sure. Since 1945, society has easily amassed more than 100 times the amount of information that all of human history had been able to up to that point. That’s absolutely mind boggling.

momThink of the things passed down by your grandparents: Old love letters, diaries, faded pictures that have a tangible warmth and sense of history to them. Years from now, what will you pass on to future generations? CDs with jpegs? Flirty, love emails? By that time the information on the CD will have either begun to disintegrate (CDs have a debatable shelf life of between 10-100 years, depending on many factors) or the technology to read them will no longer be available. Many people today don’t like digging through their own avalanching inboxes or maxed-out hard drives, so why would anyone in the future care about what you didn’t either?

The BBC’s Domesday Project in 1986 teaches a valuable lesson on this subject. As an information source that was supposed to last 1,000 years, it lasted only 16 before becoming increasingly inaccessible. On the other hand,William the Conquerer’s original Domesday book made of sheepskin, which recorded Britain’s state of affairs in 1086, can still be inspected and read today in excellent condition at the Public Record Office in London—instantly and easily.

Today, CDs and DVDs are the primary method used to archive nearly everything…and it should make you worry. Especially when these discs are essentially the only places you store precious, irreplaceable family memories, photos and movies, as well as vital family, personal and company data/documents.

I’m just as guilty as anyone else of living too digitally, which is why it’s important to step back and reflect. Remember that the next time you log onto Facebook, Flickr or write in your blog. Nothing lasts forever. But at this point, getting it to last just a few more decades is starting to sound good.


Some simple ways to preserve pictures:

• Print on acid-free paper
• Store in albums made from acid-free materials with acid-free dividers
• Create duplicates that are stored separately
• Avoid subjecting to extreme lighting and moisture
• Keep in room temperature, preferably between 65 to 70 degrees with a relative humidity of about 50%
• Store in a place that is secure, such as a climate-controlled storage facility
• And the easiest, most simple? Handle with care

Related Links:

Library of Congress – Caring for Your Collections (Books, Photos, Film, Newspaper, etc.)
Escaping The Digital Dark Age – Preserving Memories for Future Generations
eHow – How to Preserve Family Photos