January/February 2009

A massive hard-drive failure can change your outlook on your digital life. Just after Thanksgiving, my system crashed and it crashed hard. My initial panic slowly subsided as I got a new hard drive, and with the help of a technical expert, we restored my complete hard drive. Complete except for the five days between the last complete backup and the time of the crash. Because I was restoring from a company tape backup system, the process took a while, and I was down for almost three days. During that time, I had limited access to my e-mail and I rediscovered the simple pleasures of editing by applying a pen and ink to a piece of paper.

The experience got me thinking about some of the pitfalls of digital technology (it’s amazing how being deprived of the constant barrage of e-mail all day long can free your mind and give you time to actually sit and think). No, I didn’t join the Luddite Society and scrap my printer for a box of No. 2 pencils, but I did realize a few things about the tenuous nature of a digital file. It’s curious that we’re so preoccupied with wanting to keep personal data from spreading, and at the same time, we need to make a number of redundant copies of any given image file to feel secure. To have redundant files or not to have redundant files? That is the question.

As my system was being put back together, I noticed the endless series of folders, each with a different project name, some dating back several years. Some of the images within those folders were made with cameras that were extinct long ago. When I was up and running again, I attempted to open some of those old images and, to my dismay, I found that the proprietary formats were so old that the images couldn’t be opened at all. Although the data is intact, the images essentially don’t exist anymore.

It’s my fault. If I had been more diligent about my backups and periodically checked my image files and converted to universal formats like TIFF, DNG or even JPEG, this could have been averted. The notion of a coming Digital Dark Age is familiar to most DPP readers. It refers to a future when old files won’t be readable at all. Some years ago, the Library of Congress undertook the massive effort to digitize its entire collection. The documents were put on CD. What happens when CDs are the equivalent of the 5.25-inch floppy disk?

I’m not trying to be a doomsayer here, nor do I necessarily advocate that you run out and start making negatives and transparencies of your archives. I’m trying to point out the need for vigilance. My new backup protocol involves a double RAID system and Apple Time Machine on top of the last-resort tape backup. If I have another hard-drive crash, the only way I’ll notice will be due to the warning message that will pop up on my screen. Life will go on, and the whole thing should be little more than a minor inconvenience. I’m also going through my image archive and converting my most important files to universal formats. While these formats might not always be universal, I have set up reminders to periodically check to be sure everything is still readable. By staying on top of it, I should be able to make any necessary adjustments if the need arises.

I’m still a complete convert to digital. The last of my film cameras have been retired to display status on a shelf in my home. The power and capability of digital technology will keep charging forward, and I’ll be at the front of the vanguard. But I’ll also be taking a little more care to be sure I’m not moving forward so fast that I risk leaving something behind.

—Christopher Robinson, Editor

Leave a Reply