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News & Insight

Internet Founder Shares Concern About Digital Dark Age | Print Your Photos

By Kishore Sawh on February 20th 2015


‘Bit rot,’ ‘temporary,’ ‘transient,’ are all terms one is likely hear when discussion begins on the future of data storage. The general consensus by those that matter, is that just as our technology advances, just as quickly technology we’ve depended on will become obsolete. Who are those that matter? A now google VP, Vince Cerf is often regarded as the ‘Father of the Internet.’

There is a growing fear that much of the 21st Century may be lost in the winter of what he and others describe as the ‘digital dark ages.’ These aren’t comments made in passing at casual dinners or to scare University Freshmen, but in major addresses to the academics and population of those who may be able to address the issue and find solutions.


At the American Association for the Advancement of Science, this very topic was discussed. The feeling is that many of our records, photographs included, may be lost in the wake of an accelerating digital revolution. While backwards compatibility is still around for many devices and mediums, the feeling is that won’t last forever, nor for very long, so there’s no guarantee that any digital file you currently have will be able to be accessed years down the road, much less half or a full century away.


We think about digitizing things because we think we will preserve them, but what we don’t understand is that unless we take other steps, those digital versions may not be any better, and may even be worse than, the artifacts that we digitized.

Cerf’s ideas for the time being are two; one that we preserve every piece of software and hardware like in a museum, but in digital, in cloud servers, which would ensure they will be available for generations.

The solution is to take an X-ray snapshot of the content and the application and the operating system together, with a description of the machine that it runs on, and preserve that for long periods of time. And that digital snapshot will recreate the past in the future.

There is some concern too, though, that with continual moving around of files they will constantly degrade to the point of being unrecognizable from the original. Images are particularly positioned to suffer from this. So his next suggestion is for us to preserve our treasured memories in a hard copy type – in print.

Sure, paper tends to degrade also, but given that with maintenance we still have paper records from centuries ago, it’s still promising. Once again we are moving to the past to navigate the future.

On a personal note, I always suggest that we print our images to promote the craft and feel some tangible form of our work, but it appears there are more merits to that than previously perceived.

Source: BBC

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Vince Arredondo

    Interesting article

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  2. John Cavan

    Format obsolescence is less of concern as long as the format specifications are actually known. If that information is present, there is always going to be someone who can write the software necessary to retrieve the information and possibly convert it.

    Hardware obsolescence is a greater concern, but one that can be managed, albeit by paying attention to changing trends. Presuming you’re not cloud storing, then at some point you will need to consider media transfer options and that’s how you manage that shift. There’s always a transition mechanism to assist there, even if it’s just the network between the computer you’re replacing and the new one. To be fair, the hardware manufacturers have gotten better at maintaining backwards compatibility for things like USB and Thunderbolt, so your only real risk is that the interface disappears entirely and there are no adapters, which is unlikely (for example, there are Firewire to USB adapters).

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  3. Mike Roux

    Do we really need all that data for eternity? Millions of photos of our kids growing up? Less is more precious.

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    • Thomas Horton

      In trying to be as objective as I can, I see no real reason why my photographs should survive past when I die.

      Will future society really suffer if they have less selfies, pictures of food, and cats in funny poses? LoL

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  4. Lars Joreteg

    There seems to be TWO separate concerns about data backup that tend to get mixed in articles like these.

    1. Losing your data – Not a problem if you have a proper backup methodology. You should have both local AND cloud backup. You’ll be thankful for a cloud backup if your house burns down, or all your equipment is stolen. And a local copy is essential for a rapid restore. People who are concerned about security of cloud backup – ask yourself this: Do you worry more about your data being lost or being stolen?

    2. Data format obsolescence (your new software unable to understand the old file format) – They way around this is to use common data formats (like JPEG), or formats that are open (like PNG) or well documented (like DNG). Those are all well documented, and will always have software available. Stay away from oddball formats like camera-specific RAW or TIFF with its multitude of undocumented/unofficial compression schemes.

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    • robert garfinkle

      A very concise explanation / set of questions –

      Lost vs. Stolen. Lost first; and stolen – well, that takes first place too…

      In an above post, I suggest create your own cloud, w / redundancy… though it is on site (available to me from anywhere), which is a hazard, it is pretty safe from being stolen – behind a Virtual VPN to which honestly I have no clue what the password is to get into it… there is no way to remember that password length / complexity – making it “more” un-hackable, not completely, but close (not perfect)… somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 to 200 characters long. The VPN ports are the ONLY way in…

      I will get to duplication of content, offsite soon, also across a thick VPN, once it is completely duplicated, the updates will be small…

      And, as you can probably agree, there is no 100% guarantee that data will be absolutely safe… anywhere… no matter how / where it is stored – there does run a risk, no matter how small, that both / all copies can get lost / stolen / damaged – and I suppose the reasonable thing to do is reduce the risk as much as possible within reasonable cost, right…

      I do not like other’s cloud platforms – there is so much more of a threat (too many to describe here) other than hackers… seriously…

      as far as compatibility, not so worried. there are easy answers, such as you describe, like lowest common denominator file formats… however, original form (i.e. RAW) keep a copy of that too… and just make sure your content is stored on healthy equipment / storage, also, keep a copy of software around to work on that content, with a computer to run it on. you should be good to go.. yes?

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    • Steven Pellegrino


      I think there is also a third concern and that is hardware compatibility with your local archive. Floppy discs, diskettes, zip drives are obsolete. It’s like saying you have a VHS back up of your movie collection. While you may still have a VHS player, ultimately it’s a short-term solution that isn’t going to be viable a few years from now.

      Ten or twenty years from now we can all have a closet full of external hard drives containing thousands of images with no way to access the data because the current state-of-the-art hardware no longer supports the outdated technology.

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    • robert garfinkle

      what about putting your images, in original format, on DVD / Blu-Ray. though discs can be destroyed, and some say degrade, they are easily storable and can be kept in a safe or something like that…

      I have discs from 10 years ago, which people made declarations they will not last – they will degrade to the point where they cannot be read… well, as of last year, NO PROBLEM, they can be read, just fine… CD/DVD/BLU-RAY readers have a tendency to only build upon codecs not so much remove them, meaning, technology used to write them (whatever burned them in the first place), is still part of a subset… all proof to my statement, they can still be read…

      here is a wild hare idea –

      also include the software in your archives (on DVD / BLU-RAY) etc… I do not care if the software is 8 bit, 16 bit, 32bit etc… as long as you have the original software to read / work with the images, that’s a great start…

      next, keep a copy of the operating system you used, with the software above, also on DVD / BLU-RAY, with the installation key of course… and store it too… i.e. Windows XP, Windows 7 (not sure what to do about MAC :) )

      and finally, there are a few different brands of virtual machines out there on the market, that you can use to create retro-VM-machines, to install the old operating system on, then the imaging software it used to run, then you have a nice platform to work with / recall / transfer etc those images… done…

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  5. Steven Pellegrino

    Well, it’s back to film then, isn’t it?

    Time to dust off my Nikon F100.

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    • Lawrence Wong

      Film will never die…
      Well maybe, but for the amount of resolution you can get from fine grain negatives is still impressive today.

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  6. Matthew Saville

    Internet founder? I didn’t see Al Gore mentioned anywhere here… :-P

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  7. robert garfinkle

    It sounds like they are talking about compatibility more or less – where if you create a file, let’s say today, of a ZXU file type, that in the future, applications may not have the ability to read it –

    a good example would be, the codec used to create a video – maybe it was made back in 1987, yet players of today probably won’t play it –

    we have seen this over the last few years, where a video is viewable in XP, yet is no longer viewable in Windows 7 – this does happen, as the “current” player cannot identify the file, and either refuses to play it, or plays it wrong / off etc…

    But a suggestion here – which seems off, makes no sense whatsoever is, that an image degrades – I just do not believe it… there could be a way, possibly, but have to think almost impossible…

    a “101010” pattern, will always stay a “101010” pattern. do we agree – the “101010” pattern should forever stay the same…

    what they are suggesting is, technically, an image will eFade away… c’mon – information is information…

    and, on the outside, if this thinking / theory is true – then someone screwed up in math way back in the day…

    think about it – I will write a sentence fragment. “Hi, My Name Is Rob” – are you telling me that what I just wrote, will eventually become “, My sdasda.kk”, over time…

    Now, if people are careless, and do not convert a file properly, when transferring it from medium to medium, yes, absolutely, things can happen, and yes that file / content can become corrupt…

    so, in short – a “101010” pattern will probably stay the same, yet programs are evolutionary, and that may be what they are referring to… the change in those applications, to interpret what was, will become grey matter – ok, maybe they have a point… but, 1’s and 0’s in a particular pattern, if stored / preserved as is, well, should not change…

    semantics – right?

    so, ideally, would it make sense to keep an old computer around, to view / change / edit content, as it was / as it is – maybe…

    This is separate from things breaking, like drives, cpus, memory etc, to which will / always happen. yes?

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    • Bill Bentley

      The issue is both future compatibility and durability. You can’t read the 0’s and 1’s if the future program isn’t programmed to decode them. And then even if you have the program, maybe the media the data is stored on has deteriorated to the point it’s unreadable.

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    • Lars Joreteg

      Have these people not heard of using standard (JPEG), open (PNG and more), or well documented (DNG) file formats? As long as you stay away from the non-standard TIFF variants you should be fine.

      As long as the file format documentation is available, this is not something I’m losing sleep over.

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    • robert garfinkle

      Redundancy –

      I built my own home server, using raid technology, 10tb / raid 1 = 5tb. My 1’s and 0’s are stored in a database, not directly on the hard disk. I wrote my own program to manage the binary content in the database – all on a pretty sturdy UPS system. This server also acts as a streaming multimedia server (when I want it to be..)

      With storing images in mind, the program is geared to warehouse the binary itself, and the exif information. I use an MD5 algorithm to prevent duplicates – so that, in the event the camera may produce a filename twice i.e. DSC_1234, which does happen right, it relies on the fact that the original binary is “what counts” – that being an actual difference in the physical content (image) itself…

      having said that, because all files are binary regardless, the database stores everything up to 2.1GB (i will reprogram to break that barrier), that being pdf, doc, xls, txt, you name it… all stored…

      So far, so good, i can search for any photo shoot session, pull it down, work with it, save the changes back to the db, and actually discard / trash what is local to me –

      My system is accessible anywhere in the world, VPN protected, runs 24 / 7…

      Now, is it safer than a cloud based operation, in one sense yes, as it is more privatized than a publically visible and advertised file storage – but, the reality of it is, it still no different because it does have a presence… VPN, so far, has been my friend, my buddy…

      Here are benefits –
      1. I am not subject to anyone’s rules –
      2. No, ongoing direct costs / fees – a. I would have internet in my home anyway, regardless, and a server / router regardless, so powering it is not any extra cost…
      3. I can setup the type of access I want.
      4. I can structure the physical server anyway I want (discussed) –
      5. No risk of outdated software. I write it… I maintain it… binary is binary
      5. Cost of box and operating system – 800.00 for the server, 800.00 windows server software, that’s it… $1600.00 may sound like a lot, but really, not so much considering the role it plays..

      Back to topic – because wear and tear happens, the raid provides me enough protection and a bit of time to replace a damaged drive… the likely hood of two drives going out on the same array, pretty nil…

      In the 2 years I have had this up and running, one disk went bad, replaced both – thing runs like a champ…

      I get it, technology is constantly moving, more so than people change, and I think this article suggests that…

      as long as a person knows what the risks are, and protects themselves – it’s all good…

      personally, this is why I do not like the cloud, more risk, on numerous levels – btw, keep in mind there is not one provider out there who could ever make a promise to ANYONE, with any guarantee… you files on the cloud are open season, to many…

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    • Ralph Hightower

      Yes, Robert. Compatibility is the biggest issue that I see. In my 40 years of working with computers, I”ve seen operating systems change, applications change, file formats changes, and even storage media change (as mentioned in the BBC video).

      Who’s to say that hard drives don’t become obsolete? It may happen in the future.

      Sure an individual could move their image files from one storage media to the latest. But what happens after the photographer is gone?

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    • Thomas Horton

      Has there ever been an image format that is absolutely impossible for anyone on the earth to read? I don’t think so.

      I can still extract music from 8 track cartridge…. it is not convenient nor cheap. But if I had critical information on an 8 track cartridge, I can still extract it and save it to a new format.

      We still have datacenters with 9 track reel tapes that are still usable.

      I feel that will be the case with photographs. A mid 21st century future PC or what ever may not be able to read image formats from the 1980’s… but there will be a machine that can and a person offering that service.

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  8. Greg Silver

    I remember not too long ago backing up things on ZIP drives, then CD’s and then on to DVD’s. Now I sit in front of a computer with no optical drives. Hard drives have been around for awhile but whose to say a new file system or type of storage wouldn’t replace these. There’s definite merit in what the article is saying!

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    • Stephen Jennings

      “The CLOUD!!” might replace HDD’s, already there’s a push to backup anything and everything to the cloud. Seems more risky to me, what with all these hackings and such. Who’s to say some malicious individual wouldn’t find a way to sabotage a companies server or whatever. Or steal photos like what happened to Apple. Wouldn’t want our clients seeing nude selfies now would we?

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    • Lars Joreteg

      Cloud backup isn’t perfect – But I am far more concerned about losing the data than having someone steal it. And if you don’t do cloud backup, I sure hope you have some off-site backup. Otherwise if your house (or office) burns down, poof goes the data.

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  9. Cha

    nice try kodak…

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  10. Stephen Jennings

    I recently thought about this after a HDD died. I keep backups of backups, but looking at some of my drives that have not even been accessed in probably 2 or 3 years I wonder if one day I’ll go to access them and they don’t work for whatever reason.

    I don’t really want thousands and thousands of 4×6’s sitting in the closet though..

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