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Tuesday, September 13. 2005
You might wonder why anyone would doubt the longevity of digital images. After all, being digital they are not subject to heat, moisture, or chemical breakdown. So they are bound to live far longer than conventional film images, which suffer from all of these problems. Right?
Well, there's another aspect to this, now known as "digital death." The problem is not due to the breakdown of the media on which images are stored (although these media do degrade), but to the short lifetimes of the devices used to store and read them.
To quote Stewart Brand in Escaping the Digital Dark Age,
Due to the relentless obsolescence of digital formats and platforms, along with the ten-year life spans of digital storage media such as magnetic tape and CD-ROMs, there has never been a time of such drastic and irretrievable information loss as right now.
The half-life of data is currently about five years. There is no improvement in sight because the attention span of the high-tech industry can only reach as far as next year's upgrade, and its products reflect that.
The loss is already considerable. You may have noticed that any files you carefully recorded on 5l/4" floppy disks a few years ago are now unreadable. Not only have those disk drives disappeared, but so have the programs, operating systems, and machines that wrote the files (WordStar in CP/M on a Kaypro?). Your files may be intact, but they are as unrecoverable as if they never existed. The same is true of Landsat satellite data from the 1960s and early 1970s on countless reels of now-unreadable magnetic tape. All of the early pioneer computer work at labs such as MIT Artificial Intelligence is similarly lost, no matter how carefully it was recorded at the time.
There is still nothing in the digital world like acid-free paper. Former University of California, Berkeley librarian Peter Layman points out, "When we know a book is important, we...tell a publisher: print it on acid-free paper. And with decent library air-conditioning it will last 500. years If you want to preserve something else, like a newspaper, microfilm it. We know there is a 500-year life to microfilm properly cared for.
Read the rest of Escaping the Digital Dark Age.
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which says, "Unlike pressed original CDs, burned CDs have a relatively short life span of between two to five years, depending on the quality of the CD"
"The half-life of data is currently about five years. There is no improvement in sight because the attention span of the high-tech industry can only reach as far as next year's upgrade, and its products reflect that."
This is not a very accurate statement, in actual fact the whole article has a large number of flaws. True, products do move forward, as does technology, however a fundamental technology that has remained almost unchanged since even the pre digital age is the humble hard drive. The IDE interface, which allows the drive to interface with the machine has remained unchanged for almost 15 years.
Most savvy users will be backing up their entire photo collections to removable hard drives usually based on either USB or Firewire interfaces, due to the massive number of devices that use this interface (it is now the industry standard, and will remain so for a long time to come) they will forever be supported. even if USB or firewire is replaced their will be a long transition period between the two technologies. Look at parallel and USB, the parallel technology which is now almost never used is still being intergrated on most modern motherboards allowing the user to use legacy parallel devices alongside their USB. dont forget that parallel is a very old technology and yet it is still being supported on even the most modern motherboards.
USB hard drives will be able to interface with you machine for a long long time to come, and yes they are mechanical, so using two drives is recommended, the chance of both hard drives failing at the same time is very very small.
Apart from that, i think you will find (with maybe a bit more research) that data preservation is relatively easy and cheep using large removable hard drives, i certainly know that none of my data (or any of my clients) has ever been lost.
Good quality Optical media is certainly not going to break down within a few years as you claim, in fact most high quality gold CD-R are rated at around 100 years, longer than most of us live. if in 100 years you are still alive to backup your photos you will surely move them to a hard drive based system, where they will last forever. (and i do mean forever, a properly set up hard drive system will never lose any data, nor will it be made obsolete overnight)
Thanks for your comment (sorry I didn't notice it sooner). Your points are well taken. However, I don't think the author's intent is to prove that digital archiving is impossible, but to contrast the challenges it poses with those of archiving paper or film media. My purpose, in turn, of bringing this article to your attention is to counter the prevailing view that with digitization everything gets easier, including retrieving hundred-year-old historical images. If this illusion isn't corrected, we are in danger of losing much of our recent history in what Brand terms a digital "dark age." To further quote the article,
"The real problem" says computer designer Hillis, "is not technological. We have the technical understanding to solve problems such as digital degradation. What we don't have yet in our digital culture is the habit of long-term thinking that supports preservation .... In the early 2000s people will realize that we're not at the end of something-we're at the beginning. There really will be a year 3000 and 4000 and so on.
"The IDE interface, which allows the drive to interface with the machine has remained unchanged for almost 15 years."
It's now 2011 and IDE drives are well on their way to becoming obsolete. The new standards are SATA and USB, and soon solid state drives and eSATA will replace those.
"Most savvy users will be backing up their entire photo collections to removable hard drives usually based on either USB or Firewire interfaces, due to the massive number of devices that use this interface (it is now the industry standard, and will remain so for a long time to come)"
What's a "long time" in computer industry terms? 10 years? Maybe 15 at best?
"Look at parallel and USB, the parallel technology which is now almost never used is still being intergrated on most modern motherboards allowing the user to use legacy parallel devices alongside their USB."
I built a PC a couple of years ago and let me tell you, it was damned hard finding a motherboard that had the serial interface I needed. Serial interfaces were still standard on motherboards only 10 years ago. It's even starting to get hard to find motherboards with ordinary PCI slots now; most boards only give you one or two.
"Good quality Optical media is certainly not going to break down within a few years as you claim,"
I have CD-Rs that were burned over 10 years ago that don't appear to have suffered much if any degradation. I also have CD-Rs that were burned on good-quality, name-brand media (Verbatim) less than 4 years ago that are unreadable today.
"in fact most high quality gold CD-R are rated at around 100 years, longer than most of us live."
Just because manufacturers claim 100 years doesn't mean the discs will actually last that long. If your data is unreadable in 100 years, do you think the manufacturer is going to be around to compensate you or your estate? The packaging on every CD-R and DVD-R I've ever bought clearly states that in the event of data loss, the manufacturer will not be held liable.
CD-Rs (which, incidentally, are becoming obsolete) and DVD-Rs (soon to be obsoleted by Blu-Ray and external hard drives) don't have a track record like film does. We know how long film and photographic prints last. We know what can go wrong with them. We can't say the same about CD-Rs because there aren't any CD-Rs around that are 50 or 100 years old for us to try to read. I know from personal experience that CD-Rs from well-regarded manufacturers that were not abused or improperly stored can go bad in just a few years.
A color print, negative, or slide may fade or the colors may shift, but at least you'll still be able to view it for a good number of decades, and you may even be able to restore it (using, of all things, computer technology). When the dyes in a print or negative fade or shift, it isn't catastrophic. When the dyes in a CD-R undergo change, your data is permanently, irretrievably lost and all the data on the disc may become inaccessible.
Anyone who thinks optical media are archival is a fool.
"if in 100 years you are still alive to backup your photos you will surely move them to a hard drive based system,"
Though you didn't intend to, you just made my point for me. Who's going to keep transferring your data to the latest media after you die? If history is any indication, probably no one. Since you can't depend on anyone to keep tranferring your data, your data will follow you to the grave. When your great-grandkids find a USB key in the attic with all the family photos you took, they likely won't know what it is, what's on it, or what to do with it. They might just throw it away, like I might do today with 30-year-old floppy discs, data cassettes, or punch cards.
With film, it doesn't matter whether there's someone around to transfer it to a new medium or not. Prints, negatives, and slides will still be viewable 50 years from now (and in the case of b&w prints and negatives, they'll still be viewable hundreds of years from now). If your great-grandkids find your old photo album in the attic, they'll know exactly what it is and will be able to see the pictures without having to hunt for some long-obsolete computer interface.
"where they will last forever. (and i do mean forever, a properly set up hard drive system will never lose any data, nor will it be made obsolete overnight)"
That is utter nonsense. Hard drives are becoming obsolete as I write this, and even RAID systems have been known to fail.
I just read an intersting article at "Mark Graf Photography"
Click on articles.
Pitfalls and addictions of Digital Photography.
I'm really enjoying your site, keep up the good work.