Northern Colorado Business Report
“The inevitable loss of data and the last printed photo”
By Kai Staats
11 February 2011

How many digital photos, music, and word processor documents do you store that you consider valuable? Do you have backups? What software was used to create them and when was the last time you attempted to open a five year old document?

An article in the back pages of December’s issue of Rolling Stone magazine makes clear the challenges and pitfalls of recording, preserving, and recovering information in the digital age. Major music labels such as Sony Music Entertainment are finding that some digital recordings less than a decade old cannot be recovered due to degradation of information or more often, the loss of the proprietary software used to edit the tracks.

In a world where software applications change nearly as often as the top bands, the music industry is reconsidering both analog and digital tape archives while paying closer attention to the evolution of editing software where backward compatibility is concerned. The data that recalls how the tracks were mixed is too easily lost through consecutive upgrades and in worse cases, data corruption results in the loss of songs, tracks, even entire recording sessions.

To maintain a fully functional, fully recoverable archive, every label world-wide must test every recording in their digital archive against each new editing suite version in order to make certain their valuable data remains in tact. To ignore this process, to cut corners results in the loss of data, time, and money.

You may think, “That doesn’t concern me because I use iTunes and iPhoto and … iEverything!”

Sorry. What applies to the big guys is only compounded for you. You also use software whose media formats will someday be abandoned, requiring that you also open and re-save every photo, song, and video you own. What’s more, your $15-$250 backup solutions (if you backup at all) are far less reliable than those which are used by recording and film studios. But truly, it’s less about the software and hardware you own, for the real concern is–you.

Consider that prior to the late 1970s with the introduction of personal computers, only in the memorization of story and song had our species managed data which we could not see or touch. In the ancient and medieval times, librarians and hooded monks transcribed, copied, and created archives by candlelight, using pen, ink, and parchment. But in this modern world of digital data, our minds must visualize, organize, and preserve thousands of assets, more files than all the original works estimated to have been in the ancient Library of Alexandria. While some people have an innate sense of the virtual and are able to effectively visualize and manage their computer’s storage, most cannot.

In the January 2010 article titled “Amazon Kindle ebook sales surpass paperbacks”, Amazon states it now sells 115 Kindle books for every 100 paperbacks, more than 800,000 electronic titles in all. Yes, ebooks are typically stored on the vendor’s server, available to view anywhere, at any time. But what happens when is beaten at its own game by a competitor whose prices and services are more appealing?

You will of course open a new account. A year later, another. In a half dozen years from now, you will likely have engaged a half dozen ebook vendors in addition to your then more than fifty online accounts. Even if you do not find need to manage the ebooks themselves, or do not archive myriad songs and photos, you will need to track the usernames and passwords of all your online accounts. In this digital world, you do not have a choice but to learn to organize and preserve your virtual assets, just as Sony and the other big studios are doing right now.

My suggestion? Practice. Make backups and integrity tests a habit. As home burnt CDs and DVDs scratch easy and die fast, don’t use them. USB memory is designed as a transport medium, not an archival solution. Duplicate external drives are ideal for capacity and reliability. Remote backup services offer protection against local failure, loss, or theft, but also place your personal, often private affairs onto a system over which you have very little control. Keep at least three copies of all your files at all times, one of which is not stored with the others. Use automated backup software if you are not trained as a librarian or if you are not a natural at virtual management.

When is enough, enough? Just as we sort through our physical possessions every few years to determine what is needed and meaningful, and what is just junk, I believe in the end, we all will find the value of a single printed photo held behind a chipped piece of glass in a tattered wooden frame to be of greater value than the tens of thousands of digital photos accumulated over the years. For all the time spent organizing and preserving, it will be that one photo which we cherish most when the backup drives have long since spun down.