Still Life

I am the only one in my family who is interested in history. As we were going through my deceased grandmother’s stuff it was easy to determine who would receive all of the photographs, slides, and family records.

I knew that my grandfather, who died 21 years ago, was an amateur photographer. Boy was he. I was presented with box upon box of pictures and slides of everything from flowers to buildings to bugs.

As I went through the photos I was stunned to find a certain one. It was a guy in an old German/Prussian military uniform complete with helmet and tall boots. On his left lapel he had an Iron Cross. I thought about it for a moment and set it aside, in a special pile of shots that meant something more to me than the others. I hope to present some of these shots here after I get a scanner.

Anyway, this photo was a person I knew, but I just couldn’t place him. After a while and after finding a few more photos that were labeled I figured out who it was. It was my grandfather’s step-father. My grandfather’s dad died in WW1 (my grandfather was 2 at the time) and his mother re-married to the gentleman in the photo. It is very cool to a historian like myself to know that I have an Iron Cross in the family, even if it isn’t blood relation. What I would give to have that medal. I have no idea where it ended up.

As I was thinking about this, I had a rather disturbing thought. In this country we are very used to taking digital photographs. These are saved on laptops, cds, and other forms of storage. But technology moves forward fast. We don’t have 3.5 floppys or zip drives anymore and I assume that thumb drives, cds and other forms of storage will pass us by as well. I wonder if America will become a country without a photographical record eventually. The days of handing armfulls of photographs to the next generation may be coming to an end, and I think that is sad.

10 thoughts on “Still Life”

  1. Interesting story. I hope you can learn more about your family.

    Electronic media aren’t secure for long-term storage. I just learned that I lost almost a year’s worth of scans, and I don’t know how it happened, probably my error in managing the contents of many hard drives. I have the negatives so it’s not an irreplaceable loss, but still. OTOH we have few photos from one side of my family because many photos were lost in a flood, so the old technology wasn’t always better.

    Also, you can now distribute copies of electronic files among multiple family members, which makes the data less vulnerable. If a few of them are interested in family history it’s likely that in the aggregate they will collect more historical data than any of them could have collected individually before the Internet. The descendants of one of my grandfathers had a reunion recently, and it was amazing how much new information came out, merely by the process of meeting up and sharing photos and stories. Electronic networking accelerates human networking.

    OTOH, in a few generations no one will know or care about most of us, no matter how well we keep records, but that’s life.

  2. After we complete the migration from print to digital future archeologists will have no books to read — only shiny disks and solid state drives in shapes that hide their function.

    Even worse, our children will not have the equipment to view are pictures, movies, and emails because all our current-day storage and reading devices will rely on technology that will be unsupported in the future. Already I have this problem with reel-to-reel, laser disk, wax cylinders, and recording wire.

    Home movies from the forties cannot be watched without a projector – and a projector is useless without the proper bulb or a replacement for a broken fan belt.

    Even worse, an Electromagnetic Pulse Attack will cripple many old devices that cannot be replaced and will lead to power rationing laws that prohibit recreational uses of electricity and batteries in the name of protecting the environment.

    Unlike the 60s, the next time the power goes out for several days we will be back in the stone age.

  3. I have a gmail (gmail allows you to upload files now) account which has many documents (anything critical or not public is encrypted and uploaded as a file) and all my photographs arranged by subject. So I see this technology as a benefit, no need to worry about sharing, when I die, my password will be given out and anything anyone wants can be down loaded.

  4. Jonathan – “OTOH, in a few generations no one will know or care about most of us, no matter how well we keep records, but that’s life.” True, but the historian in me is hoping that I can get at least one of my two kids to give a damn about it, so I can keep the information and photos moving along at least until I am gone.

    Mdb – who says Google will even be around when you die? I would doubt in it’s present form it will even be recognizable.

  5. My aunt, convinced that no one would care about this “old stuff” burned all the family pictures that she had, which was my grandparents’ collection. Included were all existing photos of my great grandfather.

    I have an extensive family tree that I constructed about 15 years ago but it is on a PC hard drive that sits on a shelf. I think it is Windows 95 based but, so far, I haven’t had the time to get it off the disc. I did, however, upload it to the World Family Tree and have been able to download it from that to my present Mac genealogy software.

    You are absolutely correct about digital photos and mine all go into iPhoto, which is backed up along with the rest of my documents in several places. One of those is Carbonite and I am trying to set up my daughter’s laptop to backup automatically on that system. If her laptop dies or is stolen, we will have a test to see if that is reliable. As she is a college student, it is a reasonable concern. They have a small business account that will automatically backup five computers.

  6. Why the assumption that (at least some) people won’t make the effort to keep transferring their data to contemporary media? It’s been a pain, but I’ve moved scans of photos from floppies, to hard disks, to CDs/DVDs. If I’m still alive when the next medium appears, it’s likely I’ll do that transfer too. If not, then it’s for my son or future archaeologists to sort out.

    Maybe I should be looking at some sort of diamond polymer to coat the original photos and slides, if I were truly concerned about enshrining the data, but Sic Transit Gloria Mundi. I cannot transfer to any medium the visceral content of many of my own memories; words don’t suffice. Entropy will win.

    @Michael Kennedy: You can easily and cheaplyl find an external drive case that would take your Win 95 hard disk and connect it to your current PC/Mac via USB. That way, you don’t transfer anything, really, just add a new (even if less efficient) hard drive to your system.

  7. Achieving long-term archiving of digital material is a very, very serious problem. For example:

    “Recording media for digital data are vulnerable to deterioration and catastrophic loss, and even under ideal conditions they are short lived relative to traditional hard copy format materials. Although we have been dealing with acid-based paper, fax paper, photo film and other fragile media for decades, the risks posed by magnetic and optical media are qualitatively different. They are the first reusable media and they can deteriorate fairly rapidly, making the time frame for decisions and actions to prevent loss a matter of years, not decades.

    “In addition to the challenge of media deterioration is the problem of obsolescence in retrieval and playback technologies. Innovation in the computer hardware, storage, and software industries continues at a rapid pace, yielding greater storage and processing capacities at lower cost. Devices, processes, and software for recording and storing information are being replaced with new products and methods on a regular cycle, driven primarily by market forces. Records created in digital form are vulnerable to technological obsolescence. Even though some optical disk technologies promise life spans of up to 100 years, many authorities argue that enhanced media longevity is of questionable value because current media outlast the software and devices needed to read them.”

    The migrating ‘solution’ to archiving, even if it works, is an infinite prison. You always have to buy the new stuff before the old machines disappear or won’t work. (So where are the incentives for manufacturers of digital media to care about this problem?) And remember, at every point in the chain, migrating assumes not only the availablity of technology, but also the availability of a person who cares. That is, one thing the migrating ‘solution’ can’t work with is exactly the situation described: a record made at one moment, and then simply left to sit unattended for generations.

    One of the few attempts to actually resolve this that I have found is work done at the Imaging and Media Lab of the University of Basel (Switzerland). Their solution: photographs! (OK, microfilm). Hundreds of years of storage with no further migration required, meta-data embedded right in the data, all you need is a scanner to get it all back — whenever. A small company has operationalized the fruits of this research. Here’s a Babelfish translation about ‘Monolith’, their product line. I hope the Babelfish translation is good enough for you to get the idea:

    “Monolith uses photographic film, in order to secure digital data archives-suited. In an efficient procedure any computer data are transformed into a visual image. Independently of it whether you would like to archive texts, audio, video or diagram data, permit Monolith the figurative representation of the data. This at the University of Basel developed and of us perfected procedures possesses relevant advantages:

    * The back reading does not require a special equipment. A scanner with suitable dissolution[I think they mean, ‘resolution’!] is sufficient for successful restoring of the raw data.

    * Monolith gets along without cost-intensive migrations. An advantage, which no other archives system is able to carry out.

    * Monolith can represent meta data directly readably on the same data medium. This guarantees a high security of the structural data and facilitates a future looking for and finding of contents.

    * Photographic material cannot be changed after the development no more. The data archived on Monolith are protected thereby against manipulations and computer-criminal attacks.”

  8. Some good points above, but don’t worry too much just yet.
    You know, the next media has appeared. And it still reads the data from your Photo CD. In fact, it is being obsoleted, but the blue-laser drives still read your disk just fine.
    The funny thing about all these 12-cm optical disk formats? Just about every one of the (post-red-book) players will know how to read the image files and spit them out somehow for display on a screen. When 12-cm disk drives start disappearing from your day-to-day computer and/or media-viewing system you can begin to worry.
    The accelerated aging tests that we can’t trust? So do three copies for each archive location, one on silver media, one on gold, and one on blue. Surely one of them will have longevity. The real risk is damage to the media, so giving copies to others for safekeeping is a great idea. Buy the disks in bulk. They are cheap. Be profligate with them, there is safety in numbers (of copies).
    Post it in cloudspace as well, and make sure that others have the password to access the images. Write the URL’s, usernames, and passwords on acid-free paper in your estate-planning file.
    If EMP is your worry put one of those portable LCD/DVD players in an old cookie-tin, so that you can view the photos post-Apocalypse.
    As an audio archivist I used to have to deal a lot with real-time migration of media as digital media aged. That sucked, but we are long past those days with current storage media.

  9. Who says google will be around? No one, I have copies on my computer and an external hard drive. If google isn’t around, some one will be. Digital media is easier copy and move around than physical media, something will be available.

    Catastrophic loss and other issues people bring up, I will be in much better position to recover the data, than you if you have a house fire. The issues exist no matter what form you have the data, recovery is easier and much more likely with digital.

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