Will digital files simply disappear?

I have always had a great deal of skepticism about the long-term survival of images stored as digital files. I am not alone in this feeling. There is a nagging sense that a lot of digital data is not going to last beyond the lifetime of the person who created it, if that long.

The question has to be asked: will my children have any interest in the thousands of photographs that now reside on my computer drives? Even if I am diligent about having multiple copies, in different locations, is anybody going to take the trouble to look at the images contained on these drives, assuming that the file formats will still be readable decades from how?

My son has pointed out to me that the data will likely remain somewhere, in the same way that Google searches of my name will bring up talks I gave decades ago. But that’s the problem itself: all this data is floating around the vast space of the Internet, and you can’t see it in any recognizable form unless you have a piece of software that can convert the data to a picture on a monitor screen. Realistically, will my children, or anyone else for that matter, know where to find these pictures, once I am no longer around?

As things now stand, my heirs will inherit my computers and hard drives, and realistically, what are they going to do with them? Answer: they will either sell them off, or toss them in the garbage; all my saved images will disappear. In the off chance that my images are backed up to some Cloud storage, somewhere, will my heirs have the passwords needed to retrieve these files. Not likely.

In short, there is simply a natural sense that digital data, my photographs, have an expiration date. Once past that date, they’re gone.

I am intrigued that the same attitude does not apply to analog (film) images. The film image is saved on a physical medium that you can view with your eyes. Your heirs will have the same access to the images as you did. There is nothing especially troubling about the passage of these images from one generation to the next. You don’t need any special machines, software, passwords, etc. Your pictures don’t have any “natural” expiration date.

Although the disappearance of my pictures seems like a tragic loss to me, I’m not sure my children feel the same way. The digital world they inhabit is nothing but a series of transient images, swiped one after the other on a smartphone. Memories don’t count for much; it’s all about the present, the moment that comes and goes, and is forgotten. I suspect that for many of this generation, the idea of holding onto photo albums is viewed as a silly relic of a past time, and a waste of shelf space.

The youth of today have uploaded a gazzilion pictures whose half-life is measured in seconds, a momentary rush, and then never to be seen again. Something sad about that, I would say.

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