Last month, internet pioneer and Google Vice President Vint Cerf warned the world on BBC about the impermanence of our data in a digital form due to the fact that the technology that can read it today will become obsolete. He argued that in a few hundred years, we may not be able to read any of the images or videos created today for the same reason we can't read a floppy disk: because technology will have moved on without us, and without that information. But is he right?
In the video below, a possible solution to "bit rot" is to print out your photos. A second solution is to take a "digital snapshot" of the current environment (the computers, the software, the hard drive media) in order to preserve the environment necessary to read today's data.
In reality, the fact is that professional photographers, and other hobbyists and advanced amateurs who care enough about their photographs, will convert their images and video data to the necessary formats as those formats are created. We haven't yet had a new format so revolutionary to the photography world that it requires a conversion of all of our photographs to stay relevant. But that time will come. And when it does, I (and most likely you) will be converting my entire library.
Me, you, the other readers of our website, the two professional photographers in the world that don't read our website, we're not that many people when you add us all together. Yes, billions of people's photographs will get lost, then. But as bad as it may sound, we just don't need their photographs to help preserve history. A few hundred dads and moms will convert their poorly composed and half-blurry photographs of children playing their Game Boys in the backs of their cars, and that will be a few hundred more than we'll really need.
There used to be a time when every photograph was important. In the 1830s, there were probably only so many photographs in existence that they could all fit neatly on your desk, maybe in a few small stacks. And those are incredibly important photographs for obvious historical reasons. But who needs the billions of selfies we create every day of ourselves (myself actually not included, for once) plastered in last night's club-hopping experience? Who needs all the photos of the backyard barbecues, wives half-naked in bed (okay, we may need those), and children being fed their first meals in their high chairs?
While we may want to think all of our photographs should be so important, they're just not. History will survive in a very healthy form with all of the photographs that will naturally be preserved by those who care. And it's all simply because we have enough; Enough photographers (everyone), enough photographs, and enough people who really care.
I'm not worried about that at all. I'm far more worried about the viability of prints, as though that's a real solution. Papyrus from Egypt survived millennia, but in what condition? Researchers were able to recover the contents of the writings on the papyrus, but is our experience with that papyrus the same as it was for the Egyptian that wrote on its surface years ago? Is the color of the paper the same? Can we even hold it in our hands in the same way? Not without it falling apart on us.
We can place prints on the highest quality, acid-free, most archival paper and with the best inks into dark, low-humidity vaults... But even those will not last forever, and certainly not in the condition in which they began their lives as so-called historical, archival documents.
Until just a few years ago, it was thought that "Pompeii Red" was indeed the color of Pompeii so prominently displayed on frescos that covered the ancient city's walls. However, it was only recently discovered that many of the walls and frescos were in fact originally painted in a yellow color that was turned red by the gasses and heat of Mount Vesuvius' eruption that so infamously swallowed the ancient city.
So what is the answer? Perhaps we should do both. Perhaps we should print digital photographs, keep them for 50 years, and then reprint them with better printers and better technologies every 50 years into eternity. But wouldn't that take just so many resources? And would it be worth it?
Call me too laissez-faire, if you like, but I'm sticking with my gut on this one: we'll have enough.