Don’t Fall Into The Digital Void

It was in very recent memory, that the ‘Ransomware’ attack crippled IT infrastructures across the globe. The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) suffered the largest cyber incident in its short digital history, with medics describing how computer screens were ‘wiped out one by one’ by the attack, which spread to companies and institutions globally. Others affected included the international shipping company, FedEx Corp in the US, and German rail operators.

Researchers from security software company, Avast, said they had witnessed over 57,000 infections in 99 countries, with Russia, Ukraine and Taiwan being the top targets.

The incident reminds us all of the precarious nature of digital data, and as relatively new technology, what we should consider protecting our data and information; not least, our precious memories.

In the UK, the incident severely affected the NHS and led to significant disruption of services for a number of days, with networks and email shut down as a precautionary measure to contain the potential spread of the virus to vulnerable areas of the network and individual computers. The effect of the cyber attack was felt far and wide as ambulances were diverted from various hospitals struggling to cope without IT systems, and in their emergency departments, which saw operations cancelled amongst many other incidents.

This is just one example of a national, digital crisis, but one that underlines a fact that we, as individuals, all know too well; just how simple it is to lose important data from our digital devices.

We are all just one back up away from losing audio files, contacts and other documents, but these are all examples of data that can, (with some effort) be replaced. How then, do we go about replacing our memories that manifest in the photographs we’ve taken, either with our smartphones, or have been transferred to a memory stick or hard drive from a digital camera?

These are precious artefacts, which represent a moment in time. A single moment of our lives, which, simply put, cannot be replaced. Ever.

So how concerned should we be about our digital image archive?

We have all heard the statistics, stating that more photographs are now being taken every hour/day/week/month than have been taken in total in all the preceding time since the invention of photography. The proliferation of digital photographic devices means that just about everyone has the ability to take photos at any time and, with the availability of cheap mass storage, in vast volumes.

There is no denying that digital imaging has brought about the so-called democratisation of ‘art’, although it is definitely a case of quantity over quality. And most of the pictures being snapped are ephemeral, especially those on platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. The reality is, every digital image is ephemeral, even those considered works of high art. By their very nature, digital photos do not exist. They are simply a massive collection of ones and zeroes stored on a piece of media that is at the mercy of electricity and/or the stability of any given storage device.

All images and documents we have been saving on computers will eventually be lost as we enter ‘The Digital Dark Age’, that could see future generations having little or no record of the 21st Century — Google Vice-President and co-inventor of the Internet, Vint Cerf

You can’t hold them in your hand and look at them without the aid of an electronic device. And with the short lifespan of digital and electronic devices, and the constant changes in media formats and their readers (who remembers SyQuest, Zip or Jaz drives, or floppy discs, or even CDs?), how long will our precious pictures be around?

In 2015, co-inventor of the Internet, Vint Cerf, stated that he was concerned that all the images and documents we have been saving on computers will eventually be lost, largely due to the speedy evolution of the digital formats outlined previously. He warned of a situation that he called ‘The Digital Dark Age’, that could see future generations having little or no record of the 21st Century!

It’s a simple case in point, to highlight the (many) people, who continue to operate legacy XP and Windows 7 systems and are unable or unwilling to upgrade. They are inherently without the necessary anti-virus software (or even smartphones and tablets that have never been updated). These people are the most vulnerable to cyber attacks or failing hardware due to age, and it comes from more than observation to state that, ‘even people who are up to date, can be sloppy about backing up their data.’

The real digital vs analogue debate now has to be directed at how we are going to preserve the images [and other vital information] for future generations to be able to study our culture and get insights into how we lived. Possibly, where it all went wrong. If everything we have is digitally archived, there could well be no tangible record of our art and culture, beyond the millions of mysterious little shiny discs, littering the earth.

So how do we safeguard our photographs?

It’s a little-known fact, that the motion picture industry in Hollywood, still archives its content onto celluloid, even though just about everything else nowadays comprises of an exclusively digital workflow. From origination to distribution. The global motion picture industry has not yet found a satisfactory and reliable archival format that performs better than film.

The movie industry has not found a satisfactory archival format that is better than film

The same principle largely applies to digital photography. The argument over analogue vs digital photography is an argument that’s been bubbling since the advent of digital imaging and, really, is now rather moot. With imaging technology development racing ahead at a seemingly exponential rate, questioning the quality of a digital photograph is no longer a matter for debate.

So it really is a question of how we archive our images; at least, those that matter to us the most.

Citizen Photo’s EMEA Business Manager, Gary Andrews, had this to say: “The rate of progress in digital imaging quality and capability really is impressive, but there are limited ways in which we can secure the future of the images themselves. Sure, it’s possible to backup digitally, multiple times, (hard drive, cloud, CD etc) but there’s just no telling how these devices will perform over time, or even if the data will be retrievable as time and technology develops. I have worked in the photographic industry for many years and I believe that the only real way to preserve these memories, is to print physical pictures.”

There’s a story that has to be referred to in order to reinforce this point, and that’s of a Japanese gentleman, who searched through the ruins of his house/town for days and days after a major earthquake. What do you think was he most precious item he longed to see again? A photograph, of course.

Gary concluded: “Photo-printing technology has evolved alongside digital capture and, particularly with Dye Sublimation solutions, the quality and longevity of a physical print, offers a simple and inexpensive way to preserve precious memories for many years to come. Quite simply, a photograph is much, much greater than the sum of its parts.”