The Elusive Digital Shoebox

Mar 14, 2012 by

In the past decade or so, digital technology has had an incredible impact on how we acquire, consume, and maintain media. Digital media—stored as bits—is rapidly replacing physical media for music, video, books, photographs, and other content.

The benefit and convenience of digital content is undeniable. We carry dozens of photos of loved ones in our pocket and a library of reading in our bag. We can catch up on movies and TV while traveling. The limits of 24 or 36 images imposed by chemically-processed film are a thing of the past—we now take hundreds of pictures on vacation and view them on our televisions.

This is all incredibly convenient, right? Absolutely. But digital technology also introduces new problems. Problems with persistence, curation, transfer, and legacy. Remember that shoebox of photos you found in your grandparents’ attic or the collection of vinyl records your older brother gave you? Too young for that? OK, how about the university textbook you occasionally still use as a reference or the DVDs on your shelf?

Physical items often have a life of decades—even centuries. Hundred-year-old photographs help us better understand the lives of our ancestors. Libraries of books and music get passed down in families. Digital items? Not so much. Files get lost or corrupted, file formats become obsolete, digital licenses are often non-transferable, and all of this is exacerbated by the abundance of content resulting from our lack of curation. We always figure we’ll identify our favorite pics from that trip sometime later. But before you know it, we’re just taking more pictures.

This is a problem that many people have been thinking about, but there isn’t a good solution yet. Online services help, but what’s to guarantee that they’ll stick around? History would show that most don’t. File formats change or go away over time, and conversion isn’t easy. Think about how many different digital photo formats, including model-specific RAW formats, have come and gone in the past decade or so.

The fleeting convenience of digital content presents problems not only at the personal level, but perhaps also at a sociological level. In addition to preserving memories for our own and our family’s future enjoyment, how will we enable our descendants to learn about life in the early years of digital content?

At SXSW (South by Southwest) this year, data issues were front and center, and a discussion facilitated by musician and photographer Jesse Chan-Norris addressed this issue of legacy head-on. Jesse suggests that there’s no easy answer yet, but that this is something we should be talking about and aware of. This doesn’t mean we become luddites; it just means that we should be thinking about content preservation as we enjoy the conveniences of digital.

Jesse was kind enough to speak with me after his talk at SXSW, and the audio of that interview is included in this post.

Audio MP3

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