Saturday, October 18, 2008

Store those Old Memories Digitally

Go look under your bed or behind the closet door, way in the back of the top shelf, or maybe in your attic. Pull out those dusty old boxes of Super8 movie film or those old Ektachrome color slides from Christmases long ago. Then, locate all your old photos hiding away in boxes or binders in the corner of the garage. Dust off the old video tapes of weddings and holidays that are still probably collecting dust on a shelf somewhere.

Everyone who was a child of the ‘40s through the ‘80s has memories stored in boxes somewhere. Dig them out and wax nostalgic about those good old days before it is too late.

All those old home movies, video tapes, and photographs are analog media. They are stored on paper, plastic tape, or celluloid. And what they all have in common is that, over time, they will deteriorate. Photos will become dull, change to yellow, and eventually fade away. Home movies will become brittle and faded. Video tape will break or the picture will start flickering and flagging to the point where it is unwatchable. And that’s even assuming you still have a VCR to watch them on.

The days of analog storage are numbered. Analog media is dying a slow, protracted death. But dying it is. So maybe you should consider preserving all those priceless memories before time has its final say.

The new method of storing media is digitally. Unlike paper that eventually yellows and rots away, unlike film and video tape that eventually lose their images, and unlike an audio tape cassette whose spools become frozen, digital storage is potentially forever. It never fades away, loses its luster, or deteriorates in any way. And it can be copied ad infinitum without any loss of quality.

But there is one thing you can do with pictures printed on paper or movies stored on film that you can’t do with digital media files. You can touch them, feel them, and hold them in your hand. You can pick up that old, faded snapshot of your great-grandfather and know that it was held with the hands of your great-grandmother, your grandmother, and your mother. So if tangibility is important to you, go ahead and hang on to those old photographs and movies, as long as you don’t mind storing them and as long as you realize they will eventually fade to nothing.

In the mean time, what can you do to preserve the memories in a form that won’t fade away? You can digitize them. There are plenty of companies out there that will take your old photos and turn them into a slide show stored on digital disk. You can then copy those files to your computer or cell phone.

I have stored nearly 600 music files and more than 3,000 family photos on my cell phone that I carry everywhere. My entire music collection, well at least all the songs I listen to frequently, I carry with me to listen to whenever and wherever I want. All my treasured memories stored in pictures are always in my pocket.

It still amazes me that all my old 35 millimeter photographs, which probably weigh 25 pounds when stacked in albums in my closet, plus the music from stacks of old vinyl record albums and CDs can all be placed on a digital memory card no larger than my thumbnail and plugged into my cell phone to be taken anywhere.

But I haven’t thrown away my old photos and CDs. I keep them because they are the tangible remains of what I now carry with me. But if I lost them in a fire or if and when they eventually do deteriorate, I know I still have them safely stored on digital media forever.

The only thing that kind of worries me a little is this. What happens if, sometime in the future, we forget how to decode digital images or sound files? I know it’s unlikely, but in the event of a global catastrophe that ends modern civilization as we know it, any old photos and movie film will still be viewable. But if no one is around who knows how to decode strings of binary digits, all our CDs and computer files will be worthless gibberish when our last batteries run down.

But it’s a chance worth taking. Despite the lack of tangibility and the off-chance that humans in the future will forget our digital coding algorithms, to preserve your fondest memories for posterity, you should go ahead and digitize them.

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