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Photographs versus Instagram’s fleeting flicker

by Ryan Catalani / Beacon Staff • December 6, 2012

My closet at home is filled not with coats and sweaters — we don’t really need those in Hawaii — but with densely-packed boxes of photographs that my parents and relatives took, often still tucked in their 24-pack envelopes. I started digging through those photos this summer to scan and digitally organize them, a process that was at times amusing — seeing, for example, bright red parrots line my grandfather’s outstretched arms — and heartwarming, as I came across sepia-tinted photos of my grandmother relaxing with her husband, both young and peaceful, on the porch of their former home in Indonesia.

Holding those prints in my hand, though, made me wonder about the longevity of my own photos — and the scores of others taken each second around the world. People each day create 340,000,000 tweets, 5,000,000 Instagram photos, and 103,680 hours of video on YouTube, but it is hard to say if that digital work will still be around in 20 years. We can easily relive our forebears’ memories by sifting through a photo-filled shoebox, but our children might not enjoy the same privilege.

It’s true that celluloid and dead-tree diaries can be easily destroyed — consumed in a house fire, drowned in a flood, or exposed to the elements — but our fragile hard drives face the same problems. Indeed, our digital media is, in some ways, even more transient. We entrust our messages, photos, and videos to Internet companies that will, most likely, not be in business a century from now: the average lifespan of a multinational corporation, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, is between 40 and 50 years. Storage formats become outmoded — Apple rarely includes CD drives with its computers anymore, and floppy disks today are more often used for decoration than data. Additionally, with an ever-increasing volume of content produced every day, each individual photo or tweet becomes less meaningful, and more forgettable.

Every once in a while, we are reminded just how brittle our digital goods and infrastructure are. In July, popular Internet services including Netflix, Pinterest, and Instagram went offline for several hours when a severe storm knocked out a major set of servers in Virginia. For that period — as the virtual cloud waged a losing battle against powerful physical clouds — the durability of printed photos came into sharp relief against the countless, inaccessible digital memories on those online platforms.

I don’t believe that tangible products are in every way superior to their computer-generated counterparts. This historically unparalleled media richness is in many ways beneficial, as it allows us to coalesce images and ideas from far-flung, previously disconnected regions. It is beautiful to see the sun rise in Bangkok as it sets in Boston, and remarkable to see revolutions play out in real time across the Atlantic. And it is entertaining to, at a second’s notice, whip out your iPhone and capture a moment with your friends. Having libraries of information just a Google search away is by no means a harmful thing.

But I also don’t believe that technology is a panacea. I find it striking that a tweet from last year can be much harder to find than my grandparents’ handwritten family records from decades ago — and that films from the Technicolor age can still be projected, but in a few decades, or even years, our DVDs of Toy Story and Slumdog Millionaire may be worthless. Today’s media decadence belies its diminished significance and accessibility to future generations. 

There is no perfect solution: Entrepreneurs will always develop new social networks, new blogging tools, new snapshot apps, and we shouldn’t stifle that innovation. We can only ensure, from time to time, that our most important recollections are still retrievable — Facebook shouldn’t be the principal home for your photos — and be more mindful of the posts we do release into the digital ether.

I won’t stop taking photos using Instagram or sharing them on Twitter. But every time I upload a picture with a faux-vintage tint, I can’t help but think of the real vintage photos in my closet at home, and hope that my grandchildren can see how I enjoyed my life, just as I can see how my grandparents cherished theirs.