Time’s effects on…digital photo files

“Just digitize it,” someone says, “it’ll last forever!”

This someone is often someone who should know better. Someone who probably hasn’t backed up their own files in months, or who has hundreds if not thousands of photos stored only on their phone. Or, if they have downloaded the photos from their phone, has just bunged them on the hard drive and done nothing to label them. Files these days come with certain metadata—date taken, date downloaded, date altered—but who ARE those people in the picture? Where are they, what are they doing, why should I care about them?

You can buy photographic albums full of strangers on eBay. Whoever is selling them has not a drop of sentimentality, really needs the cash, or doesn’t know who the people in the photos are either. Unless someone can find some other meaning in the photographs (for example, from a social history perspective) then these photographs are likely to end in the rubbish dump. When you drop off this mortal coil, who will take possession of the thousands upon thousands of image files you have stored in the cloud, or on a hard drive, or whatever other storage medium we’re using by then?

Then there are the actual files themselves, the zeroes and ones copied and encoded onto the spokes and rings of your (or some third party’s) hard drive. A jpg file uses what is called a “lossy” compression. Meaning, every time a jpg file is opened, rotated, copied or altered, the computer makes up some of the information about what it looks like. The content is extrapolated. Open a jpg file a hundred times and you have a subtly different file.

At least, until the pixels start dropping out. Then the change isn’t so subtle any more.

Analogue formats (film, tape or print) experience a drawn-out dissolution—the sound quality on your cassette tape of Duran Duran’s Greatest Hits becomes progressively poorer, the vocals shakier, the hiss stronger. Until one day you press the eject button and withdraw a giant tangle of grey tape. Even then you might be able to retrieve some semblance of “Girls On Film” from the debris. But digital loss, when it happens, leaves no trace of what has gone before.

The sheer quantity of digital photographs taken may result in another form of loss. It is not uncommon now for a museum or gallery to acquire in a single year a quantity of images equivalent to the number of images they may have collected since photography was invented (or since the institution opened). Each individual image will be but one tiny fishy in an enormous über-shoal of fish. What are the odds that any one of them will be seen by human eyes again?

“Just digitise it” MY FANNY, if I may be so bold. Clearly those sorts aren’t catastrophists.

Issue two of Materiality (the TIME issue) will be published in late June or early July. Stay tuned!