Our Digital Memories Are Languishing on Obsolete CD-Rs in Our Closets

Investing in short-lived new technology can be perilous.

Jan 2 2015, 12:00pm

​Image: ​Brian Teutsch/Flickr

​There's something to be said for being an early adopter. You get to show off to your friends. You get to feel like you're part of ~the future~. You also, in the long term, get hosed. Our digital photos from the early 2000s are languishing in low-resolution hell, sitting on borderline useless CD-Rs in varying states of degradation.

The late 1990s and early 2000s was a wonderful time to go out and buy a digital camera, of course. You could spend many, many hundreds of dollars on the Sony DSC-F1, for instance, a behemoth high-end camera sporting a .3 megapixel resolution.

In 2000, you could buy the Olympus D-460, a 1.3 megapixel camera with a 3x optical zoom, or the D-490, the world's first 2 megapixel point-and-shoot camera at a sub-$500 price point (it was $499). Millions and millions of people were buying these cameras and cameras like them.

The pictures these cameras took are, and will forever be terrible. And we saved them on our desktop behemoths with Pentium II processors and burned them onto CD-Rs that we bought from CVS in spindles of 50 or 100 for a couple nickels a pop. Maybe we got them for free with mail in rebate. What were we thinking?

Image: ​Amazon

I was recently going through some old things, and I came across damaged CD-R after damaged CD-R—many without even a sharpie-marked label, but many more with things like "PHOTOS-NEW YORK TRIP" written on it. Problem is, unlike the film photos I found laying around—from the early 90s, the 80s, some of them from my parents from even before that—I have no idea what these photos even look like. I don't have a CD-drive anymore.

Ten years ago, that thought would seem unfathomable. No CD-ROM? And no DVD-ROM either? What the hell do you backup your things on? My 16-year-old self probably would have asked in some sarcastic way.

Anyway, here we are, in a world where technological progress made our memories easier than ever to archive and backup, and a world in which, a few years later, technological progress rendered those earlier archival materials completely obsolete and maybe completely useless. I suspect the same thing happened with Zip drives and floppy disks.

Image: ​Daniel Oines/Flickr

Though I didn't check to see if any of those CD-Rs still contain my pictures on them (I suspect most of them do, despite the fact that many are discolored, scratched to hell, or otherwise in imperfect shape), even if I loaded them up, I wouldn't like what I'd see. The digital cameras I owned then paled in comparison—from a picture quality perspective—to even the cheapest film cameras of the era, and they were laughably terrible compared to smartphone cameras of today. In other words, our photos from the era were—and forever will be—blurry messes.

I know, because I found some that I had printed out. They look terrible. They are on standard inkjet paper. They make me very sad.

The longevity of CD-R discs is a topic that is surprisingly contentious. Some argue that cheap CD-Rs begin degrading roughly one-half-second after you finish recording to it; others say they're good for up to 200 years. But in 200 years, hell, in five years, who the heck is going to be able to open these files? We can do it now, sort of, if you inconvenience yourself enough to find someone who hasn't upgraded to a MacBook Air, an ultrabook, or tablet.

Image: ​Gerard McGovern/Flickr

Obviously, I'm overstating the problem a bit. Lots of people shot digital and film and backed up their things responsibly. Not everyone was a dumb high schooler who thought every little thing could be tossed onto a CD-R, and then, into a shoebox for safekeeping.

But it does make you think—what are we using today that will be obsolete and an inconvenience to use in 10 years? We think our photos are safe on Facebook until the end of time, but are they? Will our stuff sit on the cloud in perpetuity, ready for us to glance through them as we see fit? Will we laugh at SD cards and external hard drives? Have we entered an era of digital storage excess that we might have the opposite problem? Where there's just too much to pick through that nothing has meaning and everything is useless?

I guess all I'm saying is, yeah, new stuff is cool. But before you completely jump ship to a new technology, it might be worth considering what we're leaving behind—and whether that tech is going to have the staying power to throw our digital lives into it.