Digital memories: we can forget them for you wholesale!

Who'll mind your photos?

Analysis A Brazilian activist, who we'll keep nameless, had been keeping your reporter up to date with his work. He was on a mission to install computers in rural areas of the country, but hadn't been able to offer a single reason why anyone should use one - let alone why the communities should be getting computers rather than say, a new school, or a credit union, or better transport links, or even a voice network.

"But Andrew," he implored, "The digital revolution cannot be stopped!"

Irrationality abounds. Not only can the revolution "not be stopped", but neither can many of its potential consequences even be considered. That would be breaking one of the technology's greatest taboos: don't ask awkward questions. It's simply not for the likes of us to reason 'why?'

Hardly any of the potential consequences of our move to digital products and services are given a moment's thought. Instead, we're encouraged to greet each new launch with enthusiasm, by a popular press which itself is as about as critical of digital products as a child is of Father Christmas. As long as the gifts keep coming, why should one question either the mechanics or the economics behind them? This blind obedience breeds politicians like Tony Blair, who has a ten-year long urge to "modernize" his party without ever fully explaining what he means. Except that whatever he proposes is good, and his opponents are Luddites.

We know from experience that most information technologies (as opposed to washing machines and antibiotics) are introduced simply to benefit their producers, and only if we're lucky are there fringe benefits for the rest of us. The good news is that we eventually reject the ones we don't want; the bad news is just like real 'revolutions', it can take many years or decades to reject them. For now, technology evangelists trust 'more technology' to supply the answers to the awkward questions.

File Not Found

But one of the more awkward questions is what happens to "Our Stuff", once we trust it to the digital void. This was brought starkly into relief when I met Nokia user interface designer Christian Lindholm, at 3GSM in Cannes last week.

He was showcasing his LifeBlog software, which you can think of as a Microsoft Outlook's Journal, but for your text messages and cameraphone pictures. His team has done a splendid job with it, too: a simple UI, good sychronisation with the phone and hooks into real weblog software.

So there we were, discussing whether the public would ever come to trust digital media services. We know why they might not, as the issue periodically resurfaces, only to be shushed into the background. But file formats are superseded. Storage media becomes obsolete. Recordable CDs rot and peel. Even inkjet paper turns to mulch after a few years. It's scary when you think about it.

We could be looking at a generation in fifty years time which has no family photo album. Your reporter suggested it might be twenty years, or even longer - two or three generations - whether we knew if such digital formats had at last won the public's trust. And who, exactly, could we trust with our memories in digital form?

Christian had an idea.

"Google is a bank, Microsoft is a bank - and Nokia could be a bank," he told us. As he saw it, a large part of his job was persuading businesses they could make money from this.

Only, we suggested, there was no guarantee that any of these companies would be around in the "digital media banking business" in five years, no matter how enthusiastic they might be on launch day. Christian agreed that building trust was very important. Make sure you're sitting down for the next bit.

"At one time, the banks weren't trusted," he told us. "So they built great marble buildings to prove they would be there in the future."

The implication was clear: all the digital banks needed to do was erect some similar portals, and the public would be assured of their durability. At this point we felt obliged to point out a bit of history.

Losing your marbles

The banks exist today not because of their judicious choice of building materials or architects, but because they were dragged to accountability after a succession of scandals. More importantly, they admitted they simply couldn't carry on as before without being underwritten.

After the Wall Street crash, which sent the world into an economic depression for a decade, it was apparent that self-regulation wasn't enough to guarantee the public's trust. The banks themselves had no assets: they'd simply squandered their investors' cash. When the banks re-opened it was because the United States government underwrote them: investors' deposits would be underwritten by the state. And they reopened for business under a tight regime of regulation, backed by the law, with prison as the ultimate sanction.

Christian is a thoughtful chap.

"I see we have a problem," he agreed.

So while the public is well aware of the convenience of the digital formats, its sense of unease about the durability of digital media is also apparent. It just isn't expressed very readily. Losing stuff is a price we're expected to pay. But this isn't good enough.

Christian agreed this was a difficult problem to solve. It isn't necessarily so difficult - it's just that the evangelists for today's digital services probably aren't going to solve it. We undertake many unthinkably risky activities today and construct ingenious actuarial devices for coping with them. We don't need the state to run our digital banks, but we will need a regulator to ensure that private agencies look after them for us - just as we need regulators to ensure they don't swindle us out of our money.

Perhaps a mandatory custodial sentence of thirty years for any digital service provider who loses a photograph, per photograph, to run sequentially, would help concentrate their minds?

We tested Christian's suggestion on a variety of users of digital media, technical and non-technical alike. Not surprisingly, we couldn't find one person who agreed that a marble monument ensured durability. Far from it, as several pointed out: many of the great marble monuments were erected during the Robber Baron era and had come to symbolize corporate fraud.

From our experience, techie bloggers are the lossiest people you can meet - they're always losing their email, perhaps in the hope that the "hive mind" can reconstruct it for them. But by contrast, and in common with many Nokia people, Lindholm does apply some serious thinking to such difficult issues. He finds much of the hyperactivity around such new digital services "shallow" and this, we suggested, was a consequence of the web generation of developers not taking data integrity seriously enough. When you meet database designers or real system people, data integrity is priorities One, Two and Three.

Part of the sense of social responsibility that real technologists feel is that essentially, it's other people's stuff they're dealing with, and they must not lose any.

However, it's also true that many technologists always see more technology as the answer to every question. Surely a short, two paragraph bill, the Digital Memory Preservation Act, would do just the job. The alternative - generations without a photo album to hold and cherish - is really unthinkable. We won't be trusting a single bit to a photo service until such a bill is passed. ®

Related stories

Google - the only archive we'll ever need? suffers Fahrenheit 911 memory loss
How key Microsoft legal emails 'autodestruct'
Our kids deserve better than a Google future
German national library busts copy protection
Alzheimer's patients to trial MS labs life-blog gadget
Nokia makes stealth moves on your living room

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