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Professional photographers aside, for most people below a certain age the idea of actually printing a photograph seems hopelessly anachronistic. After all, everything is in the cloud, available to view on any one of our many personal screens.
But according to Vint Cerf, one of the "fathers of internet," printing is the only way to ensure your shots will last. In an interview with the BBC, Cerf argued that despite our love affair with physical and cloud-based digital storage, the chances of our data lasting long-term are slim to none.
This is due to a phenomenon known as software rot—not to be confused with the far more frightening data rot. Rather than physical degradation, software rot is used to define data that becomes unusable as the hardware and software required to access it disappears. Anyone who's tried to access old word processor documents, get data off a floppy disk, or run MS-DOS games knows how annoying it can be.
According to Cerf, due to the rapid pace at which computing technology is advancing, previously digitized information will quickly become unreadable as file formats and associated software and hardware are abandoned.
Cerf clarified that a mass digital media apocalypse is not an immediate threat. Instead, he argues, current media will be inaccessible to future generations, resulting in a blank space in history books—a digital Dark Age.
He goes on to suggest that the safest way to preserve images is to simply print them out using long-lived materials and keep them in a safe, environmentally controlled place.
Though Cerf's warnings are primarily intended for academics and large institutions, they apply to your personal photos as well. If you want to preserve your memories—your own personal history—for your descendants, you may want to select a few favorites and invest in some high-quality prints.
The moral of the story? Don't assume your digital media is safe forever. Print what you can, and backup and update at regular intervals.