THE BLOG

How to Stop Innovation From Sweeping Your Digital Bits Away

02/09/2013 04:31 pm ET | Updated Apr 11, 2013

If you live in the northeast you're either digging out or settling down to spend a day of enforced inactivity. While the snow piles up outside and the Internet is still up it's a good time to look at all the digital memories you've accumulated on your hard drive, DVDs, and various social networks.

Before the digital age we had to build personal libraries. I remember my father's library back when I was a little kid: A wondrous place where the Encyclopedia Britannica, nicknacks from his business trips around the world, and a secret stash of white chocolate all lived. I was banned for life from the library based on the mysterious disappearance of the white chocolate. To this day I blame the cat.

In the 21st century a personal digital library is available to all of us who own a smartphone, computer, and an Internet connection. Apple's big comeback was originally based on the idea of the "home media hub" where all our photos, audio files, videos, and documents are tagged, sorted, and stored. The iPod was not envisioned as a revolutionary music machine -- it was originally designed to be a wallet-size storage device. (Apple is really good at rolling with the punches and claiming that was the idea all along.)

These days a personal library is instantly and effortlessly created every time we like, pin, tweet, +1, and update our profiles. When a millennial of today turns 60 she will have better access to her past than my father or me. Some critics say that our obsession with documenting our lives is a bad thing, that we are taking the magic away and locking ourselves into a habit of narcissism. I disagree. If an "unexamined life is not worth living" then a life well documented can be more easily examined and improved.

There is, however, a problem.

What happens to our virtual private libraries when Facebook, iCloud, Instagram, Flickr, Google Plus, LinkedIn, and Pinterest go away? Corporations are not people but they do have lifespans. When I was in my 20s I had Genie, Compuserve, Prodigy, and America Online accounts. These "online service providers" didn't have share buttons or allow me to create profile pages but I was a very active member: I chatted and shared and played massively multiplayer text games. At the time I had no clue that all these communities and my personal history within them would simply vanish (not completely).

It happened again in the early '00s with LiveJournal, Geocities, Angelfire, Friendster, and "classic" MySpace. Now these pioneering Internet communities and the content produced upon them are sliding into a half-life of fruitless reanimation. Sadly, even Facebook and Google Plus are not immune to the forces of innovation and disruption. The digital bits of our lives are not safe. History has this unfortunate tendency to recycle it's memes and eventually all those pictures of pasta on Instagram and all those witty tweets will join your parent's AIM chats in the great recycle bin in the sky.

So here are some tips on digital preservation. While you're posting and plusing and liking and pinning take a moment to ensure the safety of your most important digital mementos.

  • Working on the great American fan-fiction novel? Family histories? Epic blog posts? Save it as a text file. A plain ordinary .txt file. Don't worry about fancy formatting or fonts. Styles (and HTML markup) come and go but text files are forever. I can still find apps and devices that can read my text files created in the late 1980s.

  • Photographing your journey through the world? Citizen Photojournalist? Official family meetup photographer? Save your images as .png files. PNG is not patented or owned by anyone but the commons (you and me). It's a lossless format which means it doesn't add a lot of artifacts in the process of storing images. It's not the best format for graphics designed for printing but in 40 years printing on paper will be like carving stone tablets. PNG is to images as .txt is to written documents.
  • Recording video and audio on your smartphone? Uploading screen casts to YouTube? Making indy movies? You're in a bit of trouble. We've already lost thousands of early Hollywood and home movies to film as it's not a stable medium. Video tape wasn't much better. Today we have QuickTime, Flash, MPEG, Ogg, AVI, and more. I worry that all these audio-video formats are still too young or too proprietary to survive for long. Video media formats are a rat's nest of licensing, patent infringement, and proprietary algorithms. Long term, I hope that something like the Google-sponsored WebM wins out but Apple is drawing a line in the video sand with QuickTime. Your best bet to save your most important videos and audio files for the long now is to keep transcoding as each generation of technology peaks until time-based media loses it's luster as a battle ground for giant corporations.
  • And where should you keep all these files? Everywhere! Burn CDs and DVDs (if your computer still has a CD/DVD slot), copy them to Dropbox, iCloud, Google Drive, and Microsoft Skydrive. Thumb drives and portable SSD drives under the bed and in bank safety deposit boxes are a good idea.

    I know this sounds paranoid and a lot of work. Recently I found my journals from high school. Because they were written in the pre-Internet era of pen and paper I was still able to spend time with my angst-ridden teenage self. Were I but five years younger they would have been stored on Apple ][ floppy disks as Bankstreet Writer documents. How on earth would I read them?