April 17, 2014

Is anyone holding onto their digital pictures?

While poking around the dank storage area of our basement back home, I found a nearly 15 year-old tower computer lying ignominiously on its side on one of the shelves. It had been sitting there since 2010 and had scarcely been used since around 2008. When I later opened it up to clean it out, there was thick dust covering all top surfaces and a good amount of the cables. It was a miracle that when I first tried to power it on, it took only a little coaxing.

While cleaning out lots of old files to free up some hard drive space, I came across what must have been hundreds of image files stored across a few dozen folders. This computer had been my brother's during college, and went back into general family use during the mid-to-late 2000s. So there's a good range of who and what is pictured. My brother's social circle at college, family vacations, holidays, and so on and so forth. Not to mention a good deal of pictures of old photographs that had been digitally scanned.

Nothing mind-blowing, but isn't that normal for family pictures? And it's not as though any single picture would've been a major loss, but family pictures aren't trying to make the individual shot excellent, they're trying to record what our experiences were.

Needless to say that if I hadn't taken a curiosity in restoring and preserving this dusty old thing, it and those hundreds of pictures would've gone straight into the landfill. I backed up the pictures onto a flash drive just in case the hard drive craps out, and it struck me that we had to buy a new drive for this purpose. There wasn't a master drive that we had been loading digital images onto all along.

Perhaps other families are more OCD than ours (that would not be too hard), but I suspect that most people are not moving their old picture archives from one main "device" to another. And given how quick the treadmill of planned obsolescence is running, they're not going to have much time to get to know the pictures that are confined to a particular device before cycling on to the next one.

Photographs are the exact opposite. In our cedar closet, we still have album after album full of film prints, some of them going back to the early 20th century. Photo albums were never housed in a larger piece of technology, let alone one that was subject to such rapid turnover. So it hasn't been hard to keep those archives separate from all the other stuff that comes in goes in a household.

And although I've written about how bland, forgettable, and crummy digital pictures look compared to film, their quick sentence to oblivion seems to have more to do with digital storage media rather than digital image capturing. If you took pictures with a digital camera but printed them up, they probably wound up in a photo album with the others. Whereas if you took pictures with a film camera but told the photo lab to upload scanned image files onto a flash drive instead of making prints, you'll lose them before 10 years is up.

It may seem odd that digital images are vanishing so easily — although less tangible than photographs, they are still housed on a physical machine. But those machines are getting more or less thrown away every several years these days, and even if they're donated, they have their hard drives automatically wiped clean before passing them along.

Forgettable images on disposable machines — how would this world ever go on without progress?


  1. remember disposable brownie cameras from the 50s?

  2. Facebook has become the default medium for backing up digital photos.

    Corporate social media sites and cloud storage are the photo albums of today.

  3. Where are everyone's MySpace albums then? That was not even 10 years ago, and they'd made the switch to Facebook by around 2008 -- their entire picture collection on the first site thrown away. (Still visible to others, but not attended to by the former owners themselves -- like non-biodegradable litter tossed out of a moving car.)

    Facebook itself is going the way of the dodo for Millennials, now that the Boomers and X-ers have permanently settled there. The latter may use it as online storage, but we'll have to wait and see if they just grow bored of the site and abandon it -- along with their photo albums. They may not delete their account, but just give it up without bothering to transfer their picture collection to their hard drive or flash drive. And they definitely aren't going to make prints of them.

    Millennials aren't even going to give their Facebook albums that much of a chance. They're not only moving onto other sites, but multiple ones at the same time -- Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, and whatever they'll be next year. Not synching up their photo albums, and just abandoning them whenever they grow bored of the site.

    I'd say they care more about importing their bookmarks, preferences, and passwords than they do about their picture collection. They also import their phone number list if they get a new phone, and transfer their mp3 collection to new devices.

    But not pictures -- vivid reminders of their real-life experiences could not be more disposable to them. That throwaway impulse seems to only be growing stronger, with Snapchat blazing the trail toward complete visual disposability.

  4. Is anyone holding onto their digital pictures?

    Yes, but those that do are those making a special point to.

    The problem is that people value their memories but they're too lazy to expend the effort needed to migrate them to new technologies.

    If you're not willing to do that then it's a good idea is to make a point every year to go through the pics you've shot and pick a handful to be printed to go into an album.

  5. This really hits home with me right now: my wife discovered a big cache of photo negatives and slides, some of hers from a big high school trip to the Soviet Union (right before it collapsed) and some rom her parents. Since I have a flatbed scanner with a film sttachment, she has been going through and scanning them.

    What really got me were the slides. The negatives have faded, but there are ektachrome slides that someone took of a picnic that looks like it was in the late 60s, when her parents were still datings. These have been sitting in a box in an attic for 45+ years, but they look like they could have been taken yesterday. As long as you keep them in semi-decent conditions, slides are just about the most archival format there is.

    It really made me vow to load up the old film camera and take more slides in the future...

  6. I can't imagine abandoning old photos any more than deleting meaningful memories. I don't have enough of either as it is. Digital files are all that will remain after we're gone.

  7. Snapfish makes it really easy to do. But evilwhitemaleempire's comment is still legitimate.


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