Digital photography has been around long enough so that it no longer is the Next New Thing. In fact, its place as a wonderful creative tool to photographers young and old is secure, given its ability to create and deliver images almost instantaneously. But my concern about the long-term retrievability of these images only was underscored by the pickle I found myself in the other day with my comparatively new (only two years old) PC.
Don't ask me how, but I seemed to have picked up a virus that prevented me from printing out my writing. I was able to e-mail back and forth just fine. I even was able to print out my e-mail. But suddenly, instead of printing out my own articles and letters, the little laptop that couldn't simply belched and said "Run-time error '424.' Object required."
"Oh," my other stepson Bill said when I told him of my problem, "that's the standard error message. It's why people hate Bill Gates."
Any negative feelings I have toward the computer billionaire are centered more on his desire to buy up the rights to millions of stock images and photo archives, not on the limitations of his software. So the error message didn't immediately set up warning flares in my mind against the founder of Microsoft.
And, in fact, when Dan looked over my machine, he was able to set things right fairly quickly.
In the process, I had Dan look over the rest of my files and go over my machine, in much the same way that I have my dentist go over my teeth. Preventive maintenance, you might call it. A good and cheap regimen to follow, especially if you have an electrical engineer/computer guru in the family.
But, as both Dan and Bill have pointed out to me, that maintenance would be much more effective if I had a built-in way to back up my voluminous computer files.
"You are practicing unsafe computing," Bill warned me when I confessed that I did not have such a system, beyond every so often saving things to disk when I thought of it. The fact that my PC automatically created a backup file of my work was fine as far as it went. But in reality that would mean nothing if a really bad virus turned my whole hard drive to toast. And even if that were a farfetched fear, my auto-backup feature also used up twice as much space on my hard drive as necessary each time I pressed "save."
The obvious answer would be for me to invest in a Zip drive those little gizmos that take what look like diskettes on steroids so I could regularly suck up whatever was on my hard drive and have it for safekeeping. But Dan made a good point. "You might be better off with a CD burner," he said, noting that my files are comparatively simple data files, as opposed to image files, and that I could take my CDs and put them in a safe deposit box (or, for that matter, my sock drawer) without significant worry that I would not be able to retrieve the information on them ten years from now.
My stepson pointed out that the older CD technology has been around for years, if not decades, having proven itself in the marketplace, and that the vast majority of laptops these days have CD drives, while only a comparative handful can accommodate zip disks. It is reasonable to assume that ten years from now, given the ubiquity of CDs, I would still be able to retrieve the information on them, even with a newer computer.
But in that space of time, Dan wondered, would the Zip drive have been replaced by the Next New Thing? And if that were the case, would I be out of luck if I had not transferred all my data to it?
That's the dilemma that today faces photography and photographers. No one least of all me can underestimate the value of digital imaging. I'm just enough of a troglodyte to worry that the stuff you entrust to your disks, your drives your whatevers are ever going to be readable by your grandchildren.
Last month, an article by the Post's Joel Garreau ("Thinking Outside the Box," Style, March 19) articulated so many of my concerns about modern technology that I have bored my friends and family urging them to read it. (Now it's your turn.)
"In that simpler age [i.e., the 20th century]," Garreau wrote, "older technologies cars, televisions [insert 'cameras'] might have been full of glitches when they first appeared. But eventually they reached a stable plateau of convenience and standardization.... Such plateaus are no longer in sight for centuries."
When Garreau wrote that, I thought immediately of cameras that have been around, virtually unchanged, for decades. The Leica M6. The all-manual Hasselblads. Virtually any view camera you can think of. Each has achieved that "stable plateau" and their manufacturers wisely have decided not to fiddle with them. Even Nikon, which has kept pace with electronic innovation, has done so at a much slower and, I think, saner pace at its highest end, especially with its film cameras. I think back to the long gestation time for the now-legendary Nikon F5, and how that camera simply leapfrogged its competition and has stayed at the top of the heap ever since.
Compare that, say, with whatever New Thing you have bought recently.
"Technology is going to continue to get worse as long as the buying public buys without a squabble, without protest," Garreau quotes computer critic and author Alan Cooper as saying. "The techies find it easy to hide their guilt. They say you have to be computer literate. They're wrong. Computer literacy is an excuse for techies to say, 'I don't want to actually have to think this stuff through.'"
Notes Esther Dyson, another industry critic: "There's a fundamental conflict between the seller and the buyer of software. The buyer wants to make it work. The seller wants to make it half-work and improve it next year."
Which, in a nutshell, describes my skepticism about the wonders of digital and why the Next New Thing I buy may be a (comparatively) retro CD burner for my computer.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.