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Techtips 151

Generation "Lost"?

By Kevin Workman
Forward By Chris Herzog
Sunday, December 30, 2007

The relatives have packed up and left, and the feast entrees have been carved into sandwiches and long since eaten. For most of us, the holidays have come and gone. For many of us, especially those with children, that also means that countless digital photos of family and friends have been snapped over the course of the last week or two.

What if you lost all of those photos? What if 20 years from now you lost every digital photo you had taken over the course of the last two decades? In this week's Tech Tip, we take a little detour away from "how to" and put some thought into "what if?"

PullQuoteI think I will be part of a lost generation

Not lost in the classic sense, but lost in the sense that my children and my grandchildren may not be able to look back on the history of our family during this time, because as a generation, we are in a transitional state of technology where our ability to manage and store data has not kept up with out ability to produce it.

I remember while growing up that I would often look thought my parents' storage trunks and find old photos of them during their teenage years, or from when they were my age now.  It was fun at the time to see what they looked like and the clothes that they wore, Image_1but it also gave me a sense of history and helped me see my parents and family as people rather than just "Mom and Dad".

The photos that I, and I am sure others have found, are old and dirty, some of them are torn and have water stains and other random damage to them over the years, but for the most part it’s just like looking through a dirty window on history:  it might not be perfect, but you don't necessarily need it to be perfect. These photos become a visual record of both history and the people and events surrounding a person and family life. 

However, my generation is a special one.  My generation is one that started out with old-school film cameras and then found the wonder and flexibility of digital imaging. Digital cameras help scratch that itch of instant gratification but also give us the flexibility of sending out copies to friends and family with incredible ease and at virtually no cost.

My fear however is that as digital becomes the prevalent type of camera used in homes around the world, that users of these cameras now have a new responsibility to maintain the images in their computer systems using technology and tools that they probably barley understand. Photos from film that are printed on paper can be placed in a box and left in a person's attic for years, only to be found later by some adventurous child or family member, but digital pictures have to live in a more controlled environment than an old box.

BarryAs digital imaging and storage technology progresses, people will be not only faced with how to manage and store their digital images on a day-to-day basis, but they will also have to consider how to create backups of them that are resilient to failure. Users will have to understand that the CD or DVD that they backup on today may become unusable in the future due to damage, or the media may be intact but the technology that reads it will no longer be available.

Users who store their images on their desktop computers will be faced with an ever-growing problem of digital information management. As time goes on, the probability for a catastrophic failure in their machine, or backups, greatly increases.  Users will have to adopt a multifaceted backup strategy that will give them several things to fall back on in the event of a failure. That's a lot to ask of some people who have trouble not clicking on an unknown person’s e-mail attachment.

Image_4So we see now that at any point during the lifetime of a person, if they should become lax, they could run the risk of losing their entire history of digital information.

Some would argue that there are companies that will store your information for you for a fee, they will ensure that it's managed, backed up, and secured for a monthly cost. However, as we have seen with the dot.com boom (and subsequent bust) of the late 1990s, long-term outlook for private and public corporations is questionable at best. People may also face a time in their lives when they become financially unable to pay the monthly fee, only to see decades of digital information become lost due to their inability to pay.

Not all of the information that users have on their machines would fall into a category where they would want to keep it over long periods of time, in fact I believe that most people’s personal data needs fall into one of a few categories:

Type 1 Data – Transitory Class Information

Data that a person uses on a day to day basis, but that loses its value over time rapidly. This would be classified as casual e-mail on a user’s machine, a birthday card they are creating for a loved one, or a letter to a possible employer. Desired retention for this information is usually measured in weeks.


MJBType 2 Data – Persistent Class Information

Data that users access that is important enough that its loss would represent significant loss of time, expense, or emotional distress.  This would include information such as digital music files, digital movies, address book, and long-term projects. Information in this category would usually have a lifespan of a few years, as digital standards for music and video will change over time, and data such as contact information is constantly in flux.


Type 3 Data – Heirloom Class Information

This final class of information represents information that would be of interest over very long periods of time. Digital images that are important to future generations such as family portraits, holidays, vacations, the birth of a child, etc. Digital information such as a person’s will, diaries, and medical history. Heirloom class information would be of interest for possibly 100 years or more.

As time marches on and future generations have access to more advanced computing technology, there will probably be solutions for future individuals to keep many copies of their data in some type of computing data collective.

However, for this generation, which has the ability to generate tens of thousands of images within just a few years, I fear we may become a lost generation without a visual historic record unless something is done.

The solution that I have kicking around in my head is patterned from the company Alcor.  Alcor does cryogenic preservation of human bodies. The idea being that medical science might not be able to save a person today, but years from now the technology will be available to cure them of whatever they were suffering from. Even the technology to reconstitute cells damaged by the freezing process has yet to be invented.

However, one (of the many) risks in this sort of thing would be that Alcor as a viable business entity fails to sell their product and turn a profit and becomes financially insolvent sometime down the road, say ten, 20, or 50 years from now. That would be really unfortunate for everyone who was banking on the technology being available in the future to solve their problem when the company that keeps them on ice has to let them thaw out due to cash-flow issues.

Image_6So what Alcor did was to allocate part of the money that you pay them to put yourself on ice toward the creation of an irrevocable legal trust. In the event that Alcor as a corporate entity should fail in their business, this legal trust would take over and has enough money invested in low risk, long-term investments to keep their facility maintained in perpetuity (at least in theory.)

This same approach needs to be taken with digital information that someone wants to keep for an extended period of time. As an example, a person could purchase space on a storage server for a one time cost of say $1,000.00 for 50GB today. This seems very high, but consider that this really is just a one time purchase; users would never have to pay again for the space for their information, and part of the money would be used in a legal trust to ensure that in the event that the storage management company were to fail that the trust could take over and keep your data on-line in perpetuity.


Also keep in mind that there are certain real expenses (which will decrease over time) involved with maintaining data at this level of redundancy and availability.  As an example, let’s assume four copies (that’s now 200 actual Gigabytes for the 50GB you have purchased) on high-speed, redundant storage arrays located on four different continents available online 24/7 over high-speed connections, along with a “hard” back-up archive located in a decommissioned missile silo.

As times moves on, your data would have to be migrated to new systems and new storage technology. Unlike the "freezing a human body" business model, costs would come down over time as storage technology was improved and updated. In 20 years the cost to maintain 50GB would be an order of magnitude, less than today.

This storage area would not be a place to host images for web sites and blogs, but a place to keep data that you want to keep for a lifetime. At the time of creation you would also be able to set inheritance rights for your information, so that the generations to come would have access to it.  Encrypted personal information could be marked for deletion upon your death.

Steps need to be taken now to create something like this so that we don't lose an entire generation’s visual historic record. Although my grandkids may not be able to rummage through old trunks of photos in an attic, they might be able to find them in some digital repository that still lets them see their family's history.

I hope I will not be part of a lost generation…

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