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6 December 2023

How permanent are our digital memories?

Most of us now believe our digital records are better preserved than our physical ones. Is that really true?

By Sarah Manavis

Big Tech has long traded on nostalgia. Facebook pushes daily “On this Day” notifications; the iPhone Photos app encourages users to look back at pictures from days, months and years ago. As we accumulate years spent recording our lives online and on our personal devices, the greater this digital archive becomes – giving us more reason to look back and more reason to post about the past.

Millions – if not hundreds of millions – of people relish the ways tech has provided us with a digital version of scrapbooks, photo albums and letters saved in shoeboxes. Most of us now believe our digital memories are better preserved than our physical ones – no longer at risk of loss or damage.

However, this weekend, that belief has been shaken by a wake-up call from one of the world’s biggest tech companies: Google is beginning to delete old accounts, and their associated data, as of 1 December. Under the new policy, announced in May, accounts that have been inactive for more than two years will be permanently closed. The process will be completed gradually over the coming months. This includes Gmail, Google Photos and Google Drive accounts: all files associated with these accounts will be irreversibly erased.

While it’s likely most of us aren’t storing precious memories on a Gmail account we haven’t used in two years, this move from Google is part of a wave of Big Tech firms showing us how impermanent digital archives always have been: the reality that it has long been possible for our personal files to disappear on a company’s whim. Though Google has said this is a security measure – as accounts which are infrequently used are more likely to be “compromised” – this policy change also comes at a time when there is growing awareness of the expense of mass data storage, which is only going to increase as the volume of data we ask companies to hold for us increases. It also comes just two years after Google Photos stopped offering free, unlimited data storage and Google has gained a reputation for deleting data without notice over the past half decade.

This isn’t unique to Google, either. All cloud-based data storage services are eager to let us know they aren’t going to hang on to our data indefinitely. Big Tech wants to profit from our digital memories, knowing most of us are willing to pay to keep them safe – but it’s clear that they are not completely secure. All of this together reminds us that these services shouldn’t be seen as a permanent home for our records.

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The root cause of these changes is that we’re storing more photographs, videos and messages than ever before. This isn’t just a shift from analogue to digital record-keeping, but a more fundamental change in which parts of our lives we choose to document. Many people now photograph the mundanities of everyday life, storing dozens and hundreds of images. How precious are these memories, really?

We no longer just photograph major moments of our lives or special images of our loved ones. Alongside them, we document random streets; coffees out; home-cooked meals; gym pics; cinema tickets; commutes; flowers; selfies; screenshots of important documents, messages or things we’ve seen online. Many people will accumulate dozens of photographs of the exact same thing. Photography is free and instant for anyone with a smartphone, and many of us are motivated by social media and instant messaging: often, we record more of our lives to share it with our friends and family online.

At the centre of this is an idea that every moment is worth remembering – a message sold to us by the same Big Tech firms now charging us for these memories, finding new ways to profit from the human instinct to reflect on our lives. There is a fear that in losing our images, messages to loved ones, or even videos we’ve seen online, we lose something invaluable. But perhaps we can afford to lose much of it.

Many of the solutions to this problem are unglamorous: store your data on multiple clouds, back-up regularly, make physical copies of the things you care about the most. But part of the answer will be found not just in documenting smarter, but in documenting less and losing our attachment to things we never really needed to remember.

[See also: Does AI know you better than you know yourself?]

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