We’re living in a ‘digital dark age’ – here’s how to protect your photos, videos and other data

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If you grew up with social media, chances are you’ve taken more photos over the decades than you’ll ever remember. When cell phones suddenly became cameras, social media turned into a community photo album, with memories forever online. Or so we thought.

In 2019, MySpace lost twelve years’ worth of music and photos, affecting more than 14 million artists and 50 million songs. If Instagram or the entire internet suddenly disappeared, would you still have access to your precious memories?

We live in a ‘digital dark age’, a term popularized by information and communications specialist Terry Kuny. In 1997, Kuny warned that we were entering “an era in which much of what we know today, much of what is electronically encoded and written, will be lost forever.”

He argued that we, like monks from the Middle Ages who kept books (and therefore knowledge), should preserve digital objects of today. Otherwise, future generations will be left with gaps in knowledge about our current lives.

Quarterlife, a series from The Conversation

Quarterlife, a series from The Conversation

This article is part of Quarter Life, a series about issues that concern us in our twenties and thirties. From the challenges of starting a career and looking after our mental health, to the excitement of starting a family, adopting a pet or simply making friends as an adult. The articles in this series explore the questions and provide answers as we navigate this turbulent period of life.

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People often say that “the Internet is forever,” but digital artifacts like photos and videos are actually unstable and non-permanent. You’ve probably encountered “link rot,” when a URL to an important resource leads to a now-deleted web page. Over time, hardware becomes outdated, degrades, and is upgraded. Bit rot (also called data or file rot or data degradation) means that we may have no physical means to access our past data.

Many people already find it difficult to use technology and software that has reached its “end of life”. Given the lack of backward compatibility (when updated technology or software cannot support older versions), how will future generations access old data stored in outdated formats?

We also see issues arising around data ownership, especially when it is controlled by private companies. Families have faced legal challenges in accessing the social media accounts of deceased loved ones. Likewise, if Spotify or Netflix closed down tomorrow, you wouldn’t own any of the songs or movies you stream every day.

A digital life

For a number of reasons, you might not even notice that we’re in the midst of a new digital dark age.

From Google’s smart homes to contact tracing technology, life is becoming increasingly digital. Without an app, internet or social media account, it’s difficult to verify your identity and access data – even your own. Many people don’t even think about non-digital means to record, prove and live their existence.

With Instagram Stories disappearing after 24 hours and Snapchat and WhatsApp’s disappearing message features, you’re probably used to data disappearing instantly.

With the growing need for environmental sustainability, switching to digital formats seems like the responsible solution to reduce our carbon footprint – but have you thought about the e-waste you produce?

Even with data protection laws giving people the right to have personal data erased, many can do so not want their data to be kept forever. Identity theft can occur with social media content that reveals biometric or other personal data. Not to mention cyberstalking, cyberbullying, the spread of “revenge porn” and online grooming.

But despite all these very understandable concerns, there are still good reasons to think seriously about how you preserve the digital artifacts and data that matter most to you.

A young man smiles as he browses a selection of vinyl records in a storeA young man smiles as he browses a selection of vinyl records in a store

Protection and preservation of your old data

If you lose your phone, can you remember important phone numbers or navigate the streets if you lose them? If the answer is no, you may want to think more carefully about data retention.

This is something we all need to think about, and not just leave it to digital archivists and conservationists. When there are organized efforts to preserve data, who decides what to preserve can become as much a political issue as a technological one.

When it comes to your own digital memories, there are services you can use and steps you can take to prevent data from being lost to history:

  • Store multiple copies (and formats) of important data on different devices: SD cards, USB drives, DVD/Blu-ray drives, external hard drives and NAS (Network Attached Storage) boxes. This should be accompanied by an assurance that you regularly migrate important data to the latest device or format (remembering to avoid bit rot).

  • Try to (re)discover analogue trends – board games next to video games, vinyl records via streaming music, or celebrate the revival of Polaroid cameras. There are many services available to turn digital photos into printed photos, albums, and physical artwork.

  • Embrace the ethos of the FAIR principles (discoverable, accessible, interoperable and reusable), so you and others can easily locate and access all the important data you want to keep.

  • Finally, if you come across a rotten link or other missing data, you can investigate data preservation initiatives such as the Long Now Foundation’s publicly accessible Rosetta Project or the Internet Archive, a nonprofit library of free digital books, movies, software, music and websites.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The conversation

Esperanza Miyake does not work for, consult with, own shares in, or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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