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Storing things is easy


This week’s episode of Accidental Tech Podcast continues discussion that I have really appreciated, motivated in part by Bradley Chambers’ post on the state of photo management in iOS. The followup conversation this week begins with John Siracuasa’s good-so-far experience with Everpix, and focuses mostly on the dilemma of reliable and accessible backups of one’s photo collection.

Over the years I have accumulated a series of increasingly-large external hard drives that perform both backup of my active data as well as offline storage and its backup (offline storage being for the stuff, almost exclusively photos, that I moved from primary storage to free up more space). I have had an array of backup regimes including wirelessly mounting these external drives for incremental backup using a terribly fiddly launchd+ unison and later rsync script, which turned out to be fiddly enough and require enough babysitting that I stopped doing it altogether and now rely on somewhat randomly scheduled cabled backups. In addition to these, I have backups from various points in time to cloud destinations like Strongspace and Box.net and utterly gobs of pictures at Flickr and Facebook. (Also Trovebox where I spent some time last year. You get the point.)

I have and will continue to pay good money for the desk- and cloud-based boxes that hold my stuff. Problem is, perhaps in contrast to the ATP conversation, the boxes might be too easy. I’m not suggesting that making Time Machine/Capsule work flawlessly is easy, or that most upload bandwidth allows for efficient creation of comprehensive cloud backups; but what’s easy is filling up platter after platter with data. To be sure, as a general area of computing, not having backups, or not having backups that work are substantial problems (how many of us have tested our backups or could actually perform a restore from them to rebuild a working boot disk?).

But as space gets cheaper and services proliferate, the boxes of disks become for me a minority concern and even exacerbates the problem of retrievability. More important is knowing what I have, and perhaps this is the difference between backup and archiving. I think the real problem in twenty years probably won’t be having my stuff around but using it well, by which I mean:

  • that serendipitous rediscovery of a memory
  • my son could use pictures of mom and dad for a surprise anniversary party
  • not sorting through dozens or hundreds of photos from the same event to find a good one
  • the video I shoot is discoverable
  • it’s possible to find a photo of a person from a location even though I don’t exactly remember when I took it
  • browsing photos is pleasant despite there being gigabytes and gigabytes and gigabytes of them, from different catalogs and sources

Some of this is a problem of discipline: and if I were just more diligent about keywording and filing taxonomy then perhaps this would be easier. But it’s also a problem of scale: Files not only keep getting bigger but we are making massively more of them every year. And unlike the storage element, the problem of scale isn’t getting easier, and won’t get easier without next-gen advances in tools that help with navigating and understanding the content of our photos.

In short, finding what I’ve stored is hard, and it’s made harder by the passage of time, the shifting of things offline as new content gets bigger than always-on capacity, and the arrival of new platforms and devices.

Going back to the beginning, I’m considering Everpix myself not for backup purposes but because they seem to take this quite seriously

It has become easier and easier to take pictures of everything, but technology to manage them has not progressed much. Photographs capture precious memories and emotions, yet a computer stores them as files and bits. Effectively, we, the users, are the only ones for whom these images still have a meaning. Maybe not for long: as photos accumulate by the hundreds, or thousands, on our phones, memory cards, hard drives or social networks, the cost of collecting, organizing, and managing them becomes so high that we also lose touch with these captured memories. Our memories could, ultimately, end up forgotten on some computer memory.

So why am I holding back? My primary reservation is about having Yet Another Service holding my stuff. Everpix would be an easy, no-brainer buy for me if it could do what they offer on my desktop — or my own storage, wherever it is — without requiring me to send them all my stuff. But at the moment maybe that’s the price for (part of) what I ultimately really want.