Worrying About My Own Digital Dark Age

Dom Corriveau

Dom Corriveau

Rather than relying on “The Cloud” for my backups, I’ve always kept a strong backup system for local copies of my most important files. For me, its my family pictures. As a father of 3, my worst nightmare is realizing one day the thousands of pictures I have of my children are suddenly gone.

About 3 years ago I found FreeNAS & I’ve never looked back. Using a local file server using FreeNAS (and the very handy ZFS file system) I’ve been running it as an appliance, while occasionally burning my pictures to a DVD. Its been a solid backup & I’ve never really thought twice about it.

But lingering there in the background, there has been something bothering me about my backups. When my Grandfather died over almost two years ago, I went on a rampage scanning all of my childhood pictures.

Digitizing My Childhood

Growing up in the 80’s and 90’s meant that almost all of family pictures come from various cheap 35mm cameras. After sitting in a box for months after a holiday or vacation, my mother would go down and print the rolls, often double printing some rolls that weren’t marked. All of these 4x6 prints were then unceremoniously placed in a photo album. Remember, its the 80’s, so it was a photo album with a sticky backing and a clear film that held the photos in place.

This all came about after my Grandfather died as the family was running around attempting to find pictures of him with the family. Many pictures of him growing up had deteriorated significantly or had been lost sometime in his 80+ years of life. That was when I realized I needed to save my Kmart printed childhood pictures ASAP.

I also thought about how these pictures, letters and documents left by my Grandfather let other family members peak into his life as a young man growing up during The Depression, serving in the Korean War and raising a family thousands of miles away from his place of birth. It made me think, “What will my grand and great-grandchildren find when I’m dead?”

That OS is Dead, Jim

To the surprise of no one, its not a shock that computers have changed since the 1970’s. File formats and storage devices have all changed significantly in the last 40-odd years. There was a news story about the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry. Some forgotten works of Gene Roddenberry had been thought to be lost since the computer Mr. Roddenberry used is very, very old. When that machine broke, locked away in its storage where writings his family would never see.

Luckily, for the Roddenberry estate, there was a company that could rescue the most of the files. What made this rescue difficult is the files were stored on 5.25 inch disks from an defunct operating system. This is the crux of my dilemma for long term storage of my family.

Fearing the Hardware

Last year, my wife and I took over 2,000 pictures of our family. Children, pets, vacations, get-togethers, school performances and even a few of each other made it in. Using my handy backup I know all of our pictures are safe: For now.

All of my files are saved on 3.5 inch eSATA spinning hard drives. How long will these HDD’s be able to be connected to a PC? I still have a few ATA drives laying around, but no motherboard to connect them to. In the short term, there won’t be any problems. But, what about in 40 years? Will the FreeBSD operating system still exist? Unlikely. What about support for the ZFS filesystem? Doubtful.

At the time of my death I fear I will have terabytes of information locked away from any family wishing to see it. Not just of me, but my wife and children. The scariest thought is to have thousands of pictures of my children growing up & them not having access to it.

In addition to the physical hardware, there are the actual file formats. Image formats such as PNG or JPEG have become ubiquitous, with support on every device & operating system. But, the likelihood of either of those formats being supported in 20, 30 or even 40 years is low.

Fearing the Software

Keeping up with file formats & hardware upgrades should be easy for me as I love this topic. I feel for people who lose their most treasured photos to ransomware, theft or drive failure because they don’t know how to backup their system. I think I’m leaving my family in the same position.

At home, I’m the only one who knows how the server works. I’m the only one who knows how to map the network drives. Am I creating the possibility of a “digital dark age” for my own family? If I were to pass prematurely, could my family access the data?

Vint Cerf addressed the issue of aging file formats in a speech at the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

“You and I are experiencing things like this. Old formats of documents that we’ve created or presentations may not be readable by the latest version of the software because backwards compatibility is not always guaranteed.
And so what can happen over time is that even if we accumulate vast archives of digital content, we may not actually know what it is.”

At heart, I take this opportunity to promote open-sourced or GNU file formats. Most current popular file formats (i.e. JPG, MP3, AAC & MP4) are proprietary formats. If the companies supporting these formats decide to retire their use & remove backwards compatibility, we’re up a creek. Open file formats help keep the code alive, giving users & developers access to the code base & can be preserved by anyone and every one.

Yet even open file formats may not be the solution to openly available files 4 decades from now. As it stands now, even formats 25 years old may not be accessible.

Time will tell how well file formats will age now that most of the world is online. But in the mean time, make plenty of prints of your pictures. No matter what file system or format, a physical picture will survive.

Banner image: Alvesgaspar [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

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