Print Your Photos: storage volatility, the impermanence of the cloud, & life after death💀

Posted on Mar 27, 2024


I take a lot of pictures, and I mean a lottt of pictures. If you’ve read my past blog posts you’d know that. I want to be able to remember such a critical part of my life. I want to be remembered. And I want to capture these memories in as much detail as I can. In a strange twist, it is difficult at times to live in the moment without thinking about how this moment will be remembered. So the topic of data storage is very near and dear to my heart. Three things in particular contributed to my decision to write about this.

The first was me being very nosy and Googling one of my neighbors (I really hope they don’t read this). I ended up finding their MySpace account. When I looked at it on my phone I could see very low-resolution images. When I tried to view it on my computer, the images wouldn’t load at all. This lead me down a rabbit hole to try to uncover the source of this strange behavior. I ended up learning that in 2019 MySpace lost all content published before 2016. The cause of such a massive data loss? Not a massive geographical catastrophe, not Russian hackers, not even a Chinese dancing app. It was a failed server migration. User error on the part of the developers.

The second event was an evening I spent with my mom. We were trying to find a very important tax email in her AOL inbox. To my horror, I instead found the conclusion that my mom’s whole financial life hung in the balance of a company barely staying alive. A former tech giant once deemed indestructible.

The final nail in the coffin was a conversation with a friend. I was trying to tell him how crazy it is that we might end up being one of the least documented generations and he looked at me like I was crazy. He said something to the effect of “No way, with the number of pictures and videos people take these days, we’re going to be one of the most documented generations”. He is very smart too so this took me aback and made me second-guess myself.

I think everyone wants to be remembered. They say a person dies twice; once when their heart beats for the last time and the second time when their name is spoken for the last time. So many people live under the falsehood that, due to the fact our lives are so heavily documented through social media and our online presence, we’ll all be remembered forever. To the point that we feel overly comfortable with the idea of not having anything physical to leave behind. But there is a difference between being captured and being remembered. The adage goes “The internet is forever”, but things in the real world are rarely ever that simple. In truth, the internet is only as permanent as it is profitable and data is only as good as the medium it is stored on.

Some Background

I assume everyone reading this is at least somewhat tech-savvy, but just in case I think I should go over some basics.

The cloud is just someone else’s computer. Whenever you upload anything anywhere it doesn’t just go into the ether, it goes into another computer somewhere else into the world. While it might be a big computer, maintained by highly skilled people, it is nonetheless just a computer. The same, in principle, as the one in your pocket. Just as your phone slows down over time and slowly degrades, so too will happen to servers across the world.

There is no perfect way to store information. Just as a piece of paper slowly degrades as you write and erase on it, the same fate dooms hard drives, solid-state drives, and every other form of data storage known to man. Even when static, data suffers from gradual deterioration. There’s a technical term for this, it’s called bit rot.

We are in a constant race against our technology. Data loss isn’t a rare, once-in-a-lifetime, event. We have whole technologies, like RAID, designed to soften the impact of the inevitable and make data recovery more feasible. For network engineers, the thought of a hard drive crashing isn’t even a question, it’s a certainty. And god bless these network engineers because without their constant maintenance so much of the modern world would be lost and there’d be a severe lack of information in the information age.

The Problem

This raises the question, what happens when this constant upkeep doesn’t happen? What happens when our data is left to just sit there, either because of a global crisis or simply a lack of funding/demand? Will this stuff really stand the test of time?

In the long term, the answer is no.

The rule of thumb for hard drives is no more than 5 years of sitting unpowered. After that point, the magnetic platter will start to slowly degrade. This can be mitigated by periodically powering on the drive, checking the integrity of the data, and switching drives if necessary but that brings us right back to our problem of needing human maintenance. Generally speaking, SSDs are made to the same standard as hard drives and will die in a similar period.

As for the cloud, MySpace was around for less than 20 years before they managed to lose almost all their data. I don’t mean to sound pessimistic but the likelihood of your Google Photos, Snapchat Memories, or Instagram posts being around 50 years from now is next to none. The two latter companies reached their peak long ago and are already on a steady decline. They too will slowly watch their user’s memories rot as their parent companies pivot to the next tech gold rush.

There have been some honorable attempts at long-term data storage. GitHub’s Arctic Code Vault is a great example. A data center meant to last thousands of years, buried 250 meters below one of the most extreme environments on Earth. A massive and monumental project meant to hold a whopping 21TB of data 😐. Only 4 years later that figure seems laughably small.

I’ve seen many sympathizers of this problem also point out the issue of format. Just as texts become unreadable as languages die out, files become unusable as new formats, codecs, and encoding methods take hold old ones slowly fade into obscurity. Personally, I think this isn’t nearly as much of a threat as physical wear. Throughout history, humans have been deciphering and decoding writings of the past. Assuming people of the future have technology at or beyond what we have now, decoding current information is completely possible.

The Solution

If Microsoft and GitHub couldn’t find a practical solution to this problem then what chance do any of us have? If you have pictures of your grandma as a child then you already know the answer to this problem. Physical prints of photos. Printed photos have an average lifespan of 100+ years and they require little to no upkeep.

I’m not saying you have to print out every picture you’ve ever taken, but at least the important ones. Just put them in an album and pass them down to someone you trust. Also try to apply this sentiment to the other aspects of you that you’d like to preserve, documents, emails, journals, your immortality project, etc. For better or for worse the internet isn’t “forever” so be mindful of what you leave behind.

Lastly, if you absolutely have to rely on third-party services (like email), keep your data where the money is. Don’t have your most important family photos on a dying social media site and don’t keep your most important emails with defunct email providers. These companies have one obligation and it’s to their shareholders, not you. At a moment’s notice, if deemed in the company’s best financial interest, all of your data can be erased with no path to recovery. You don’t have a right to the information on someone else’s hard drive.