Digital Immortality

“What we have done for ourselves alone dies with us; what we have done for others and the world remains and is immortal.” — Albert Pike.

There seems to be a basic human aspiration for some level of immortality. Save for those few eccentrics who chill their bodies into Popsicles in the hopes of being defrosted in the future, many try to leave some sort of permanent mark that will live on beyond them. Perhaps this desire is only a manifestation of an even more primal urge for a life of meaning, to have one’s life make a difference. The Egyptian pharaohs were perhaps the most successful in creating tangible legacies in the form of gigantic pyramids that have endured millennia.

Most important legacies are less tangible. We influence the people in the world around us in little ways that propagate outwards for good or for ill. Good people tend improve the lives of those who surround them, while others make the lives of those around them more difficult. These influences live on past us. Children are perhaps the greatest connection to the future. How we raise and nurture our children will have measurable, noticeable, and, for those concerned about immortality, traceable effects on the future. Many of us will be a living connection between our grandparents and our grandchildren, a familial connection extending five generations.

For many, making a difference means simply being remembered. Personal likenesses, paintings or photographs, are one vehicle for extending memory. A couple of hundred years ago, likenesses were only available to the wealthy that could afford to commission paintings. Photography was not invented until the nineteenth century and it was not until the twentieth century that photography was used as a regular and common method of documenting everyday life. It is now a common family ritual at gatherings to look at old family photographs. These photographs provide a semi-permanent record and a small measure of immortality.

Does digital photography challenge this immortality? Paul Rubens of the BBC News in “No Home for Digital Pictures” argues that new digital photography offers an ephemeral illusion of permanence comprised of ghostly bits and bytes. Although less than 10% of homes currently have digital cameras, 33% percent of homes with a connection to the Internet do. The technological stragglers will soon follow. Market analysts predict that film camera sales will begin to decline in the face of digital competition by 2005. Disposable cameras may be the only niche remaining for film. Rubens is concerned about the implications of this transformation for the photographic record. For Rubens, it is a recipe for disaster.

One imagines prying open a dusty old trunk stored in an attic and uncovering those long lost photographs of great grandpa’s wedding or of the old farmstead. Enjoying these images requires no special equipment. By contrast, what happens 100 years from now when some comparable trunk is opened and our descendents discover a CD full of images? Will there be an equipment to read the CD? Will our descendents even recognize the CD as a digital storage medium? Will digital images be lost in the rapid evolution of digital storage technology?

I think not. First, the permanence of film images is overestimated. The chemical processes that make photographs possible are not permanent. Photographs do fade over time, while digital images, so long as the files remain intact, they contain the same information as they originally did. Moreover, photographs are more easily lost or discarded than those saved on a hard disk.

The easy replicability of digital files is their greatest insurance of longevity. As increasingly important data are stored on personal computers, there is greater and greater need to back up information in the face of a possible hard disk failure. It is now relatively inexpensive to purchase separate disks to act as backups. As good a solution as this may be, few of us have proven to be sufficiently disciplined to either regularly backup to alternative disks or create copies on more permanent media like tapes or CDs.

Broadband networks may solve this problem. As more and more of us have our computers online 24 hours a day, seven days a week, remote nightly backups will become possible. People will find it economic, convenient, and safe to have their important files backed up remotely on a regular basis without personal intervention. Hence, digital images will exist in at least two places, on personal hard drives and on the storage media of remote backup companies. As computers evolve, these backups will make it trivial to move data to newer systems. You purchase a new computer and download your files from the network.

Networks also make is easy to share digital images with relatives further insuring long-term image survivability. Each image file attached to an e-mail provides, in essence, another file backup.

Under these scenarios, digital images are far safer than their chemical counterparts are. Now when your house is burning down, you can run in to save the family dog instead of the family photos. All your digital data having been safely store offsite, your legacy is safe.

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