Your Memories in Their Cloud

Kashmir Hill, New York Times:

The photos transported me back to a tremendously fun evening that I had all but forgotten. Yet I wondered how there could be so many photos from just one night. How do I decide which to keep and which to get rid of?

This kind of data explosion is a result of economics, said Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit library based in San Francisco that saves copies of websites and digitizes books and television shows. Taking a photo used to be expensive because it involved film that needed to be developed.

“It cost a dollar every time you hit a shutter,” Mr. Kahle said. “That’s no longer the case so we hit the shutter all the time and keep way, way too much.”


I noticed a philosophical divide among the archivists I spoke with. Digital archivists were committed to keeping everything with the mentality that you never know what you might want one day, while professional archivists who worked with family and institutional collections said it was important to pare down to make an archive manageable for people who look at it in the future.

Given enough time, I think all of us want to believe we could pare down our own digital stockpiles to just the files and photos that matter. But as I have thought about it more often, I have come to accept I will never be able to anticipate within my lifetime what is truly important in my data trove. Due to a botched iPhone backup from years ago, I am missing hundreds of photos I only later discovered were important and irreplaceable. As I tried to find those images on long-disused hard drives last year, I found images from family gatherings in decade-old Aperture libraries which took on an entirely new meaning when I rediscovered them.

These two examples tell the story of the advantage and disadvantage of managing your own files. I was only able to rediscover photos I thought were lost to time because I found them on an old Time Machine drive I had luckily left intact, but I lost a bunch of other images because of the same system. Like Hill, I have become cloud complacent: I now have way too many things stored in iCloud because I assume Apple has better data integrity practices than I am able to manage for myself. But that seems to carry obvious risks given that Apple — the world’s most valuable company — absolves itself of any guarantee that your data is safe and secure in its cloud services, to the extent it can legally get away with. This is typical and it still feels bizarre.

My long overdue project for 2023 is to ensure I have local versions of everything in iCloud. After all, I cannot know what may be relevant years from now, but I can have control over my ability to access it.