It’s a Kodak Moment — But Will it Last?

by Carol A Westbrook

I came across an old photo from about 1915, which had the names, "Anna, Rose, Mother" penciled on the back. The photo demonstrated that my grandmother, Anna, had a sister, Rose, which was also the name of the grandmother of a newly discovered DNA relative. We were second cousins–and a new branch of the Anna  Rosie and Mother copyfamily was discovered! I was pleased to find this old picture that had been kept for so long in a box in the attic.

How much we treasure our old family photos! They bring us our forebears, as well as old memories. But photos do more than preserve family memories. Since the beginning of civilization we have relied on permanent images to document lineage, leadership, historical events, wars, battles, and, of course, the news of the day. These relationships reinforce the foundation on which society is built.

Before photos, we had hand-painted portraits, sculptures, carvings and tomb paintings for these vital functions. These media were long lasting but not always accurate, not to mention difficult. Photography made it so much easier.

AswanThe invention of photography was truly a revolution, because it made permanent records available to everyone. The ruling class no longer had a monopoly on their memories, or on how history was to be interpreted.

Photography was invented by Daguerreotype in 1839, but it wasn't until Kodak introduced the Brownie camera in 1901 that it was available to all. Technology evolved rapidly, from the simple, instant Polaroid, to complicated single-lens reflex cameras with lenses, filters and flash attachments. Film photography allowed us to make slides and home movies. Life was full of Kodak moments, and we tried to capture them all.

We took pictures. We put them in albums to share with friends; we hung them on walls; we documented births, graduations, weddings and everything in between. And we kept them for posterity in a box in the attic. Haven't you noticed that your most vivid memories are the ones that were captured on home movies and photographs? Mine are.

And then, only 80 years later, the second revolution–digital imaging–made its appearance. This technology advanced so rapidly that as one format appeared, another became obsolete, and our digital files often became unreadable. If you were using digital cameras in the 80's and 90's, you'll recall that there were different standards for photos–JPEG, TIF, CRW/CR2–that that worked with some software or viewer but not others. Home movies on film were supplanted by small cassettes, then VCR-friendly cassettes, then DVDs. But there were casualties of memories, too, as older images were rendered untranslatable by newer equipment, or computers crashed and hard drives were damaged, and photos were lost forever.

Only thirty years later, in 2007, the introduction of the iPhone marked the third revolution. The smart phone and its partner, social media, have changed how we share and enjoy photos with friends, and even how we document history. We don't even call them "photos" now. They are "pix." Now, we just point our smartphones and shoot. If we download our images to the cloud, we will have a permanent record that will always be available.

Or will it? Apple-ii-vs-iphone

What happens to these images? Where do they go? Where is the attic where they are kept? The cloud is a series of networked computers, or data centers, that store data, and process requests for transferring and storing data, and running applications. Many are owned by individual companies —like Google, Apple, or Facebook — but increasingly there are cloud computing providers that function like utility companies. The storage capacity is enormous, and growing. To put all of this in perspective, the first hard drive in 1979 had only 5 MB of storage–your smartphone could hold the memory of 60,000 of those hard drive, or as the picture on the right shows, 850 early Apple computers!

The amount of data generated in 2013 was about 3.5 zettabytes (that's 35 with 20 zeros after it), and that by 2020 we'll be producing 44 zettabytes per year. A zettabyte is one thousand billion gigabytes–your phone holds about 32 gigabytes, correct? That's a lot of cell phone storage, but not so much if you count web pages, and archives, and libraries, and business data and everything else.

Is there enough storage for all of this to be saved forever? Will the world run out of digital storage?

The demand for storage is increasing continuously, but capacity is also growing, and so far it is keeping up with demand. Data centers are increasing in number and capacity, while equipment is getting smaller and more efficient. The cost of storage is dropping: In 1992, one gigabyte of storage cost around $570, while by 2013, the cost had dropped to 2¢. Considerable research is going into developing alternatives to the current methods of digital storage, including non-silicon based, or DNA-derived. Most analysts are optimistic that this technology will develop long before we start to hit storage limits. We can only hope that the digital format standards do not change, either, so we can still view our treasured photos. Until then, would you like to see my cat videos?