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Digital Dead Wood: Why Do We Keep So Many Photos?

A picture might be worth a thousand words, but a thousand pictures are worth little if we retain them because of inertia, indecision, or failure to filter.

Digital imaging has vastly simplified photography but complicated the processing of its prolific output.

As pixel resolution increases, our resolution to select, manage, and preserve our image collections weakens. The result: an inverse relationship between the volume of digital images we create and our ability to control them.

Who enjoys sorting through the 60 or 100 photos taken over a weekend, culling out the duplicates, the blurry ones, the backlit and poorly composed, selecting only those worth keeping? Who among us performs this chore routinely?

Dead wood in the tree of knowledge

If digital data were a living thing, it would constitute the roots of information-economy flora. Although nothing can grow without these roots, they alone will not generate a tree of knowledge, let alone a blossom. Often they create an impenetrable tangle.

Big data, small data, the Internet of Things (IoT), the thousands of digital images that we amass every year…much of it is dead wood and should be pruned judiciously.

Although we recognize that excessive, indiscriminate collecting gives rise to all kinds of dysfunction, we don’t wield the shears to cut it down to size.

Data economics don’t make sense

The deleterious effects of data hoarding and information overload are widespread and longstanding. Futurist Alvin Toffler wrote about these in 1970, well before the first digital camera appeared on the market in 1991.

As these phenomena progressed, the terms describing them evolved as well—information glut, data glut, data smog, digital noise—and gave rise to new terms for related issues—filter failure, time famine, information fatigue syndrome, and data exhaust.

No matter what we call it, too much data and poorly targeted data are problematic.

Note the numbers

First, consider the rate at which data flow and connectivity will increase; it is staggering.

  • The amount of digital data produced worldwide is expected to reach 180 zettabytes by 2025, via more than 80 billion connected devices
  • In 2016, 5.5 million new things will connect to the Internet of Things (IoT) every day
  • Global Internet traffic (web, email, IM) is forecast to reach 193,104 PB by 2019

By the way, 1,000 GB ≈ 1 TB (Terabyte); 1,000 TB ≈ 1 PB (Petabyte); 1,000 PB ≈ 1 EB (Exabyte); 1,000 EB ≈ ZB (Zettabyte)

Personal data represents a remarkable proportion of these totals (and companies are taking notice, collecting personal data and combining it with big data from other sources in order to improve analytics and by extension the personalized offers presented to consumers).

The digital-image share of this personal data is also astounding: an estimated 1 trillion photos captured in 2015.

Next, consider the costs of storage.

  • Data centers leave huge environmental footprints. Some calculate that their annual electricity usage in kilowatt-hours rivals that of a country of about 17 million. Uploading photos to the cloud using “free” services comes at a cost, even if we do not incur it directly.
  • A refrigerator-sized device can store 16 PB data. With so much real-time data streaming in from embedded sensors, it shouldn’t be difficult to fill them to capacity. However, with vendors charging up to $20 per GB, data storage costs are anything but free.

One storage vendor notes: “No one can look at all their data anymore; they need algorithms just to decide what to look at.” Indeed only 0.5% of data gathered is even analyzed. If it’s good data, it might reveal something useful; if it’s bad data, it can be misleading.

Obviously, it all comes down to making choices, evaluating what we capture, collect, and store, controlling the impulse to hold on to it all, just in case.

The logic of selecting and deleting

If we address the behavior that drives data overload, we can nip it in the bud rather than pruning the full-grown results.

Every time we snap a photo, post it, share it, or send it to the cloud, we need to ask: Do I really need to save this? Every digital artifact we create should either be destined for deletion or properly prepared for preservation.

History is constructed from artifacts that survive. Physical preservation is one factor in their survival. Another is the very act of selection.

Shakespeare famously left behind little for posterity to examine. Many visual artists destroy their own work (e.g., Monet and Picasso). Deletion is a highly effective strategy for protecting one’s reputation and legacy.

Implicit in this tradition is the acknowledgement that

  • inferior, intermediate, or temporary output is not worth saving
  • destroying personal documents ensures privacy and control
  • what we release into the world reflects us post facto

So what of the impulse today to chronicle every inane element of our lives? What compels this micro-documentation?

These are questions for sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists, but the behavior itself concerns technologists, data scientists, and security experts. (Because it isn’t just photos. Sensitive content of all kinds is left to dangle indefinitely in cyberspace at significant risk.)

Excessive volume

Some materials do acquire value over time. The personal correspondence of literary greats and other famous people satisfy our nostalgia, voyeurism, and celebrity worship, and they provide a sightline into the creative lives of artistic genius.

But the unit of measure has changed. Digital output dwarfs most paper archives. (Compare the presidential papers of 100 years ago to more recent ones.)

The fact is, in the digital age, the issue of volume is more acute.

Taking a photo used to be a deliberate act; it required taking notice of the angle of the sun, ensuring proper focus, framing the composition, waiting for Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment.”

Now we think nothing of taking 20 photos to get a single winner. Unfortunately, we rarely look at the other 19.

When we postpone the acts of filtering and eliminating (telling ourselves that we’ll do it later), the volume of data we generate quickly becomes overwhelming! (Concierge photo organizers will do this for those who can justify the expense. There’s also software for automatic album creation.)

Indiscriminate value

At least as important as the issue of quantity is the question of quality, or more precisely, value.

Our frenetic digital sharing lends new meaning to the term “quantified self.” How (and why) would a biographer sort through and make sense of tens of thousands of Kardashian Tweets?

“Self-showing…can be…a sort of charming ritual of daily inventory,” writes cultural critic Adam Gopnick.

An occasional dose of charm is understandably appealing. But rituals exist in defined time and space, not on a continuum. Once performed, a ritual’s purpose is exhausted. So why preserve it?

This is not a criticism of the impulse to capture memorable moments, but a consideration of the confounding consequences:

  • the climate implications of our digital carbon footprint
  • the information security risks of retaining personal data in the cloud
  • the issues of visibility, irretrievability, and digital preservation of the unstructured data in emails, messages, images, etc.

To say nothing of what relying on digital records does to the physiological construction of our personal histories.

What kind of emotional imprint can we create in our minds when we experience things through the lens of a smartphone screen? Our memories are so much richer when encoded through the input of all five senses (smelling the salt air, hearing laughter, feeling the warmth of the sun).

Neverlasting is natural

A very short-lived species of mayfly takes its name from the Greek word ephemera, meaning “lasting one day.” In their abbreviated life span, these insects serve their purpose and then expire.

We might do well to take notice of this cycle as we consider the volume and value of the data we generate, consume, and store.

Let’s do ourselves a favor by sharing in the moment, relieving ourselves of the “selection” burden, and letting go of the impulse to save every digital communication we create.

Differentiate content. Favor quality over quantity. Define value. Eliminate dead wood.

You can start by using bitpuf. It’s designed for sharing impermanent content.

 

Make it Neverlasting!

Image: hotblack | morgueFile