Most of todays long-term computer users have experienced dead media in the form of the 5.25-inch floppy disk. If you have an old disk to read, you probably no longer have a computer equipped to read it; the 5.25-inch drives are becoming collectible. But if you have one, you should know that a lot of plastic and rubber parts fail. Tape backup is worse. I have a number of backups on nonstandard tape that are useless, their data essentially lost forever.
Dead-media issues are not confined to digital computers. For example, most of the vintage 1960s quad-head video gear for recording TV no longer works. The few big Ampex monsters that are left are being used to transfer old tapes onto a different format while they still can. There probably will not be enough time to move everything over, and plenty of quad tapes will remain in storage and become useless.
This brings us to the issue of digital photography and all the pictures we are taking. Will they end up on dead media and be lost forever? Probably not—and perhaps the opposite will happen. As anyone who has adopted digital photography knows, you end up with too many backup copies of your images. With digital imaging, we take more pictures and have more perfect copies than ever. During the film era you had one lone negative, and it was often scratched.
More images were lost because of scratched or lost negatives—which could never be perfectly backed up—than you lose today as a result of format changes. If the negatives or pictures got wet, they were ruined. The really old stuff, from the turn of the previous century, has faded for good, and there are no digital negatives to save it. Computers can sometimes pump the colors of old negatives to get close to what they once were, but old color negatives are fading faster than we can fix them.
That said, there has to be some concern over the long-term reliability of digital storage, with the recent overblown fears about disc rot—a perceived problem that harks back to the late 1970s and some bad pressings of laserdiscs. In fact, we are witnessing a consolidation process resulting in more and more backups. And because we tend to use music industry–type (CD and DVD) consumer standards, we will probably have playability for a hundred years or longer. There is not as much dead media in the music industry; just consider that with the right equipment you can still play a 78-rpm record from 1904!
Technology dead ends
People back up their photos mostly onto CDs and DVDs, and they do it redundantly, moving forward from technology to technology. You back up on CD-ROM, then you move the CD-ROMs to DVD-ROMs, and then on to whatever format is next, leaving behind more and more backups. If one system fails, youve got multiple redundancy; nobody ever throws these discs out, because they take up very little space.
Still, its easy to get tricked into a dead end that becomes a dead medium such as RCAs SelectaVision videodisc system, which used a vinyl recording–like technique to encode video. The number of odd VCR formats that came and went is astonishing, especially with pro gear. And lets not forget the 8-track tape player. But the CD/DVD formats look stable on into the future, with so much gear that it is highly unlikely they will become dead media before the year 2200. And if they do die, you can be certain that all the data will be moved forward onto something better.
The last vestiges of photo-loss fear come from the silver-halide mavens, who talk about the 150-year lifespan of their prints, and how digital is somehow more delicate. This is nonsense. First of all, for the past 30 years of film photography, most people have shot color, which has dubious longevity. And the lifetime of a digital file, if you maintain it on fresh media and move it onto new media as improvements are made, is essentially infinite. How can you do this with a silver-halide print without scanning and digitizing it?
That said, I do think that many of our memories locked in photos will be lost to time, but not as a result of deterioration. It will be because of the sheer enormity of the photo load on humankind. Cameras on phones. Moblogs. Picture storage sites. Sixty million new digital cameras sold this year alone. Endless images taken by everyone. Duplicates, and duplicates of duplicates! The number of digital images will be in the trillions in no time. That is how they will be lost.
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