Where are you keeping your digital shoebox?


By Thompson Knox
Originally published in The St. Louis Women's Journal, April 1, 2011

So I'm writing a book. And for this book I need period photographs that show folks in period dress and with period props. Now, before you ask, I'm not going to divulge what this book is about because that would sort of devalue it as an original idea. Don't you agree? I just want to be up front about it, so you don’t hang in there for a big reveal that isn't coming--at least not when it comes to the subject of my book. 

I unveil this mystery because a new photograph arrived in the mail. To my surprise, it was tiny. The online image filled my screen, but the actual photograph fit into the palm of my hand. Honestly. And as I stared at the beautiful new black and white photo, something struck me. The size of this piece of paper in my hand is even smaller than the photos I look at every day on people's mobile phones. And those flip phone screens are small! What also struck me was that the photo I held in the palm of my hand was more than 75 years old and, for all practical purposes, is in the same condition as the day it was developed.
Developed. There's a word you don't hear anymore. This photo isn't just a piece of paper, but a small specimen of photo-sensitive paper that survived being immersed in development solution after having been exposed to a negative in a dark room and then developed. Think about that sentence and how antiquated and totally foreign that sounds in our digital age. Then think about how archival that process was.
When was the last time you actually touched a physical photograph of your family or friends? I can only remember huddling around the glowing screen of a mobile device giggling. Is the shoebox full of family photos as antiquated an idea as photo development itself? If so, then the question is:  what has replaced the shoebox? 
My worry is that nothing has. After all, who hasn't lost their mobile phone or upgraded it only to lose their photos (and contacts) during the process? When was the last time you synced the photos to your phone back to your home computer, honestly? Who hasn't had their computer die and "lost everything”? These are the simple realities that come with trusting your data, in this case your memories, to something that has a charge.
To show the poor example my wife and I are setting for our digital shoebox solution, we will be celebrating our second wedding anniversary in May and not one of my wedding photos has actually been transferred to a format that isn't backlit and requires electricity. Well. I suppose that’s not totally true. We did have the throw-away camera photos developed, so those photos, I have in a box in the living room. What of the professional wedding shots? They’re gorgeous.  I’ve found Laura gazing at them… clicking through them on her computer one pic at a time, studying each one. But do they exist as prints? Nope—just as pixels and bytes on a compact disc.
The old and wise technologist might remind you of the importance of having a data backup plan, even for your home. Making sure that you’re well equipped with external hard drives and back-up software that consistently runs against the computers on your home network, creating incremental back-ups of your data every day. For the most unlucky users, that you might have two such devices. One that stays at home and one that stays at work and you rotate these two devices each week to ensure you always have a recent off-site back-up as well.  You know, in case of natural disasters.
However, the hippest of savvy technologists would say that the real answer lies in “the cloud”. He would argue that sites like Flickr (http://www.flickr.com), photobucket (http://www.photobucket.com), Google's Picasa (http://picasa.google.com), Shutterfly (http://www.shutterfly.com) and, of course, Facebook are the answer, but do you want to trust the most precious of things, your memories, to something called "the cloud"? Clouds don't seem very permanent to me. I suppose the question I ask myself is: "Will they be around in 75 years?"
So, friends, it’s time to put on my archivist shoes and do some syncing, do some backing-up, do some burning and take some files to "get developed" at the local photo-mat of choice. Or, maybe, I should just get that photo printer for the house.  Then Laura and I would be rolling in wedding photos.
 After all, someday, years from now, someone is going to want to see which tablet computer I was using way back at the turn of the century and I don't want to let them down. Gotta run, the iPad is down to 5% power and I don't want to lose my article. Uh oh, here we go again...

To read the original posting, please visit The St. Louis Women's Journal.