How well are we preserving old photos or all that data we create every day?

We're drowning in data. And yet we may have lost what we should be saving, we may have kept what we should have lost

Where once we may have kept family photographs in a drawer or family albums, now we have ceded some of our ownership rights over to the platforms where we posted them. Silvio Rusmigo / The National
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By some metrics, we are drowning in data. A 2019 World Economic Forum report estimated that by next year 463 exabytes of data – a single exabyte is equivalent to 1 billion gigabytes – will be created every day.

To put that figure into context, the entirety of global mobile data traffic was expected to reach 130 exabytes every month by the end of last year.

These are big and baffling numbers by any measure – and if we are creating vast volumes of data every day, why is it that digital record keeping might be at risk or at least on the edge?

A 2024 academic study of more than 7 million works published in digital scholarly journals found that more than a quarter of that large sample size were “seemingly unpreserved” or lost.

The report’s author, Martin Paul Eve, concluded that digital preservation was fragile and that warnings issued nearly 20 years ago calling for urgent action to preserve archival material had been relatively unheeded.

The great irony of the information age: the more data we produce, the less we properly preserve

This is what has been described by some as the great irony of the information age: more data is being produced than ever before, but those records may well be less accessible than ever before. The more we produce, the less we properly preserve.

The issue is compounded by the fractured nature of our digital world.

Post-pandemic hybrid working takes place on an expanding array of platforms. A 2023 Forbes study found that the average office worker spent half their working week communicating on digital platforms. An average hour of an office worker’s life might be spent hopping between a Zoom or Teams call, answering queries on Slack or email, and checking other platforms on their smartphone, such as WhatsApp.

A working life essentially exists in a series of digital silos, and every day a segment of that data is lost, damaged or becomes hard to retrieve. Our lives outside work could easily be characterised in a similar manner, albeit with a single silo (smartphone) housing a constellation of smaller repositories of digital information (apps). They have exposure to similar risks.

It is for others to make a judgment on what effect that may be having on people and society, although you don’t have to search with any intensity at all to find multiple takes online on how smartphones have ruined this or that part of contemporary living or experience. It could be countered that it’s not ruination but change or progress that has taken place – and that’s where we go back to data production and preservation.

In many households, spring marks the regular ritual of decluttering. Traditionally, that process involves sifting through piles of paper and belongings and working out what has outlived its purpose or usefulness.

It is often a reminder that we acquire objects and paperwork easily, but we find it hard to dispose of them. The process of restructuring and ordering provides a form of catharsis to some in spring cleaning. So, too, the discovery of long-forgotten objects and the decisions over whether to archive or dispose of them.

In years gone by, that process might have involved reviewing handwritten letters kept for reasons of sentiment or significance. Now, much of that correspondence may be on WhatsApp – and maybe set to disappear, be deleted or be rendered “seemingly unpreserved” – or any of those other digital tools we use to navigate life.

The same WEF data that produced the daily exabytes insight also estimated that about 300 billion emails are sent every day – often instantly deleted by the stressed, information-overwhelmed recipient. Just as we produce more data every day, so we live under near constant threat of information loss.

One answer that’s been offered to mitigate that risk is to take data offline. The National previously reported on a James Bond-style solution to this problem that offered people the chance to cold-store their data in a secure remote location that billed itself as a global memory vault.

The site for their repository was a decommissioned coal mine within the Arctic Circle – close to polar bears, but far from prying eyes. One of the company’s executives told me at the time of a large data drop into the mine in 2020 that the archive sparked complex discussions among its customers about what to preserve in the heap of information that accumulates each day.

And so it should – preservation is one side of the coin, curation is the other.

Where once we may have kept family photographs in a drawer or family albums, now we have ceded some of our ownership rights over to the platforms where we posted them. The photo albums on our phones and in digital storage are, in all likelihood, an eclectic mix of pictures to be proud of, screenshots that should have been discarded but are stored and images that have a currency in the moment they were taken but have no long-term value.

That, perhaps, is the other irony of the data-soaked world of today. So much of it is available, but not necessarily in a form that is easily curated. We may have lost what we should be preserving, we may have saved what we should have lost.

Spring cleaning may become a perma-task for all the seasons of the digital world.

Published: April 11, 2024, 2:00 PM