Thursday, May 19, 2011

The digital dilemma: What will we leave for future generations?

I recently completed a family photo album/history that relied heavily on faded photographs, some going back nearly 100 years, and various pieces of written correspondence and other documents. And as I scanned this material into my computer-based digital repository I began to wonder what we, our children, and our grandchildren will be leaving for future genealogists.  

Fred Blackburn and family 1916Our family collection of photographs, passed down since the early 1900’s, consists of perhaps three or four hundred images. Some are faded and some are blurry but they are real and they are physical, capable of being passed on again and again without any concern about technology or data formats. A couple of shoe boxes and a coffee table to spread them all out on is the extent of the technology required.

But in today’s digital era I have some 14 thousand pictures stored on my hard drive (a mere trifle compared to some). Do I advise my executor that upon my departure from this earth my hard drive is to be removed and handed to my family? Or that everything gets printed out and a garbage bag full of images gets passed around to surviving relatives? No. Any images that were not committed to paper (i.e. most of them) will simply be lost to future generations.

hard driveTo be sure, the ease of taking photos and storing them is what leads to ballooning repositories, but even if we were as diligent as when working with film and printed images there is no technologically-independent physical product to pass on to others.

And this doesn’t just apply to still images. More and more music is being relegated to the computer, so gone are the days of inheriting your father’s 78-rpm jazz collection. Home movies? Ditto. Your parent’s love letters? Lost in the ether.

So ironically the very technology that allows us to so easily capture those important moments in life is the same technology that renders them so ephemeral, which will make us the last generation that will have this kind of insight into the lives of our predecessors. And that’s sad.


Gary said...

As usual Canajun, your words have ignited a spark of thought in my own mind about this subject. I do, however, have a bit of different take on the comparison that you make between the paper photos of yesteryear and the digital images of today.

You yourself make reference to what I see as one of the main disadvantages to paper photos in an album when you refer to "faded and blurry" images. With the digital cameras of today, you can take a picture of a loved one or beautiful scene and, automatically, the date, location, and whatever caption you want can be included for generations to come. You check immediately to see if its blurry etc. Much better, in my view, than looking at a photo from a shoebox and wondering who the heck it is and when and where etc.

You do, of course, have the option of printing a hard copy of a photo if you wish and when you do, it will be as clear and crisp as the day the photo was taken.

With digital imaging, it is much easier to put together a structured slideshow to share with several people in all parts of the world. One could argue it does not have the same atmosphere or emotional connection as sitting on a cottage porch or veranda with a Family member and sharing memories held in a shoebox of old photos.

Maybe that's the part you are really talking about, Canajun, and with that I would have to agree.

In conclusion, my friend, the digital age I believe is here to stay for a long time and digital images in my view are far from being ephemeral. (BTW I had to look that word up..LOL)

Canajun said...

Gary, I take no exception to anything you said about the use of technology to produce better images, or images that are easier to share over long distances, and so on. You're absolutely right and there's nothing like being able to "be right there" through the miracle of modern technology.

But then what? If all your pictures of important family events are on digital slide shows, in 50 years do you really expect your descendents to still have access to those? Not only will the storage and display technologies have gone through several significant transformations, but the hard drives on which they are currently stored will no longer be usable. Of course someone could take the time to constantly port the ever-growing database of images to each new generation, but the likelihood of that happening is, imo, nil. I mean people can't even manage to back up their own stuff let alone make copies for others.
So like all technologies, they can be both a blessing and a curse.

Norma said...

I was just talking to a friend today who keeps her photos on an outside disk. But what's worse, the technology could change and you won't even be able to move it to the next level. I have 2 computers and some of my disks with photos will run on one and not the other. Very frustrating. I still print the good ones and make photo albums I can hold on to or pass around.

Canajun said...

Norma, exactly! We are imprisoning our heritage in technology that changes at an ever-accelerating pace. And few of us have the interest, or wherewithal, to be constantly re-saving in evolving formats.