Digital literacy - the collected media of our lives

Republished on Medium

My My kids are getting older. They are fully teenagers at this point. My son has a beard! My daughter gets mistaken for her mother! I’m not feeling that old—we started parenthood quite young compared to our peers—but I do have to think about things like life insurance and paying for college.

It strikes me that I am part of the first generation of humans that really has to think of the legacy they leave their kinds in terms of the digital footprint we leave behind. My son is just old enough that his early years were documented on film—which means they are sitting in a box somewhere. My daughter’s entire life has been digital—which means her early years are sitting on a hard drive.

Just like my son’s first three years, photos were once kept in boxes and albums and stored in a trunk or on a shelf or in an attic.

There was a time when the music of your life was a collection of records or tapes or CDs that sat in shelving next to your home stereo.

Your home videos and favorite movies were VHS tapes or DVDs or BlueRay disks that lined a shelf next to your TV—personally I skipped BlueRay and went straight to HD digital files.

Books were… well… books. Your library of books may now be a mixture of hard copies and an increasing number of ebook titles that you access from your ereader, tablet or smartphone.

Now all of that personal history and media is stored in a digital format. For many, especially the generation born after the turn of the century, there is likely little physical evidence of their lives outside of the digital records kept by their parents or by Facebook, Instagram, etc.

This digitization of life is not all bad. Where a fire or flood would have once wiped out your personal collections, you can with relatively little effort redundantly store this data in a cloud provider of some sort.

If you are under 25, you probably think of your music collection as something that lives on your phone—if you even collect music.

Do you really need to own all of that stuff?

For many, ownership is optional. “Ownership” is a first world problem. Once we own things, we have to figure out what to do with all our stuff. We pack it onto shelves and into boxes. For urbanites and the growing population of digital natives. All that space used for media seems a bit of a waste.

Many of us are turning to digital services rather than physical copies. Though arguably, I know quite a few people who are turning to the retro and the analog in an attempt to connect with their media in a different way. They can do this because they have the expendable income and interest. It is really more a hobby than a true return to the past. (None of them are giving up their smartphones.)

With online services, you are giving up that tangible ownership in exchange for flexibility of access. Sometimes you are even giving up a specific and limited library in exchange for access to a broader and more comprehensive curated collection. Few people have the financial resources to collect the contents of Netflix or Spotify or Pandora.

I have a friend with a massive physical collection of music and movies. It is more content than could be reasonably watched or listened to in a lifetime. He tries, but really it amounts to a huge expenditure on a collection that will likely only be listened to or watched once. He could have rented every title in that collection for about a third of the purchase cost.

If you have ever moved, you can appreciate that a smaller footprint makes that process easier. You can buy or rent less space if your collections are primarily digital. You might even be able to argue you have a smaller environmental footprint. (Though if you are running electronic devices 24-7, you may be chipping away at that environmental benefit pretty significantly.)

So you decide you don’t need all of those physical trappings. What are you giving up?

Multiple ways that you have lost ownership of your media

In the example of my friend with the huge media collection, he owns every one of those titles. If he chooses, he can give them away, sell them, hand them down to his child as an inheritance. He owns the physical representation of all of that artistic endeavor. (His son—a digital native of 16—doesn’t want all that media, so the value of passing it to an heir is a bit suspect.)

Most people did not realize they gave up ownership of their music and movie libraries when they moved to a digital service hosted in the cloud.

Whether you are using Amazon or Apple, Netflix or Spotify, you don’t really own your digital content anymore. Essentially you are leasing your content for a very long time. Your lease of the content is directly tied to a digital identity.

This digital identity is a key part of digital ownership. What happens if you lose your password and access to the email account associated with the collection? You lose your lease. This would be particularly common at the point that someone dies. Their friends and loved ones could pick up the subscription costs or digital rights of downloaded media only if they have shared the password to the account or the email account that was tied to the account for password retrieval.

If you enabled two-factor authentication—and you should for security’s sake—transferring those digital rights is even more complex. Did you put your recovery codes in a place your loved ones know about?

This issue of ownership extends to your the photos and videos—your personal creations—if you have no backups of these files on media you can access outside of the service. Have all of your photos in an online service? What happens if that service loses your data? What happens if you die and your children lose access to the entire digital documentation of their lives? Have all your photos on your phone, but you never backup your phone? What happens if it is stolen, damaged, or lost? This is the digital equivalent of your physical possessions being lost to fire or disappearing on a sinking ship while being transported across the ocean.

A sane way to protect your digital collection

The thought of losing all your stuff may scare you a little. You may wonder what you should do to protect that precious personal history. You don’t want to disappear and be forgotten because your children have no history to pass to their children—right?

Your grandkids don’t want that photo of a flower you took on a walk through the neighborhood when you were 27… unless it was really freakin’ spectacular

First, get over yourself. Four generations ago the idea of passing significant amounts of photo or video documentation was not possible. You might have a photo or two of your great-great grandparents, maybe an antique or two that was passed down from family member to family member. That scarcity has the effect of making those items more valuable, more precious.

Save the best and give it a little extra attention

So think about what you feel has the most value to pass down. I have over 200GB of family photos and home videos. I do not want my family to have to wade through those 200GB of data to decide what is worth keeping, so I’m not necessarily going to give it the same level of care in backups.

Rate your data

In IT, information owners tend to rate data by its importance. Do the same with your digital collections. You should be backing up the most precious and valuable memories and data in at least two ways.

Rotate your backups

Make sure that you regularly rotate that data to someplace safe and away from your computer. That could be a copy on a portable hard drive that you keep in a safe deposit box, but chances are you are not going to update that very often. A fire safe in a detached garage might work, but again, you are probably taking a risk.

Be redundant with your cloud storage

If you can whittle that collection of precious down, you will be best off if you select a couple of online services to backup your data. Put a copy in Dropbox or Amazon Web Services. Backup that photo library to both Google Photo and Flickr. Do not trust a single point of failure.

Think about what it means to live in a digital age

It is far too easy to ignore just how much our lives are reliant on vast amounts of storage sitting in data centers around the world. We are a little out of touch with the past and a little oblivious to what the future may hold. We are the first generations in human history to be burdened by the cognitive load of digital living.

That doesn’t make us all that special. Every generation has lived through the significant history that defines it, but we do carry a little extra responsibility to our kids and loved ones to pass on data in a somewhat intentional way.

And I really hope that my great-great grandkids don’t judge me by that photo that I took while on a walk while I was 27. I was just trying to learn how to use that shiny new digital camera.