Digital decay: How photographs and other files can disappear

Published: Monday, Jan. 14 2013 2:19 p.m. MST

The 3.5-inch floppy disks are an example of how digital technology changes quickly and leaves data behind.

Tom Page, tompagenet via Flickr

Revenge of the floppy drive:

Today's data storage is like yesterday's data storage.

Remember those 3.5-inch square floppy disks people used to store documents and other data? How about the older and larger 5.25-inch floppy disks?

Now ask yourself if you have any way of accessing that data.

Now take a look at where data is stored today.

Sarah Kessler at Fast Company writes about how easy it is for technology to make things disappear: "The problem with digital … is that it requires active upkeep. Most computers don't have the floppy disk drives that were standard 15 years ago. Nor do they run the same operating systems or software programs used to create documents saved to floppies — even if the data is recovered, it may look more today like a garbled mix of symbols than your first novel written in WordPerfect."

It is called digital decay, and it is coming to you right now and will not likely ever end. Every digital medium, every cloud service, every computer operating system and every computer program will meet the same fate as the floppy disk.

Scary, isn't it?

"It is a hassle to open a document saved to a floppy disk that was written in the now-extinct Lotus 1-2-3," Kessler writes. "But imagine trying to open tweets without Twitter, recover a note from your cloud-based inbox after the service shuts down, or search for family photos in a Facebook account for which you've lost the password (and drats, the account is attached to that email account that no longer exists)."

Add into this direct digital loss.

Gregg Ellman in the Miami Herald quotes a recent survey from Western Digital: "Results show 40 percent of desktop owners and 31 percent of laptop owners have experienced data loss, most often because their device crashed. Included in that loss, for 41 percent of adults, were photographs — cherished information lost in a crash, or a lost or stolen hard drive."

People are flocking to the cloud — storing their digital data in online services such as Mozy.com or Dropbox.com where the files are available across multiple computers and devices. Paul Gilster with The News & Observer says this "means giving up a large measure of control to big companies who will store your data."

This is a transfer of responsibility, he says, and leaves people to have to trust the services to keep the data safe. "(If) they drop the ball, we're left with a big cleanup and a potentially devastating loss of data."

Which is what happened to technology journalist Mat Honan.

Honan wrote on Wired about how his digital life was erased: "In the space of one hour, my entire digital life was destroyed. First my Google account was taken over, then deleted. Next my Twitter account was compromised, and used as a platform to broadcast racist and homophobic messages. And worst of all, my AppleID account was broken into, and my hackers used it to remotely erase all of the data on my iPhone, iPad, and MacBook."

Honan lost "irreplaceable pictures of my family, of my child's first year and relatives who have now passed from this life …."

But if pictures and other valuable data are lost from hackers, cloud companies closing, DVDs and CDs failing or technology becoming outmoded, the results are the same. Precious memories are lost.

That Western Digital survey Ellman was quoting found that 41 percent of adults don't back up their digital files because they don't know how to do it.

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