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Peter Cochrane's Uncommon Sense: My Life Bits
We live on a timeline and pass through space but our life bits need not.

Family photos and records used to be prized documents yet they waste away or are often lost. Digital technology means that no longer has to happen. But, asks Peter Cochrane, do we value our life bits?

I have never been a brilliant photographer but occasionally - and mostly by accident, I have to say - I create a mini-masterpiece, something that deserves framing. It seems that all my life I have been snapping away accumulating more and more pictures - from my father's Box Brownie, through 35mm, to the latest digital marvel - I just keep accruing more and more pictures. As a result I have acres of folders and albums stretching back decades and I also inherited those from my father's war years and family days before I was born.

The most significant change seems to be the exponential rate of growth of this library of life. In the early days photographs were very expensive in terms of materials - film, paper and wet-processing. Later it was cassettes and batteries. Now digital photographs cost nothing but hard drive space (and at 4-5 megapixels per pic they are more or less the equal of their paper forebears). The only limit to how many we take is our time.

Paper prints seem to suffer one of three fates. They are printed, looked at once or twice, placed back in the print folder and thrown in the back of a draw never to be looked at again. Or, they are carefully mounted in albums, looked at once every five years, and live on some bookshelf.

Only the select few find their way to the wallet, dashboard, or picture frame to become a constant reminder of some loved one or happy event. Similarly, in slide form they get viewed once and are then stored in trays, only to be shown at Christmas if the old projector is still working. Trying the get a 35mm viewer or projector is now like trying to get a turntable for your hi-fi - you have to go to a museum!

It seems to me that digital photographs don't seem nearly so lucky! The vast majority seem to be consigned to a hard drive or disk never to be viewed and ultimately to be lost by an accidental overwrite or disk damage.

Some years ago I noticed that some of my oldest paper pics were starting to chemically degrade and I started the long process of scanning in all the family pics from WWII and before. To be truthful, I subcontracted the task to my youngest son as he is always in financial need. Then the fun started: "Who is this? Where was this? When was this?" Almost all the pictures were without any of the associated data you would really like - there was no context or order in many cases, for pictures taken long before my son was born and long after the subjects had died.

So I filled in the blanks as best I could. My wife helped out and so did my mother and mother-in-law. It was a strangely satisfying and reassuring task and I think we all gained something from this walk through our ancestral and family past.

Sadly, before we could complete this huge catalogue, these two old ladies passed on - and now we have blanks that can never be filled. So I resolved that I would take the trouble to catalogue all my digital pics as taken and stored. Moreover, I would also back these up in several places.

Like some badly formulated New Year's Resolution, I have to confess that so far I have failed to keep up with my digital output. My life bits are just plain getting away from me. As, camera after camera, the performance (resolution and depth) gets better and better, I just take more photos. For every wet pic of old I must now be accumulating 30 to 100 digital. I can't keep pace - and neither can my son!

Yes I time and date stamp all the pics but I don't yet have GPS on my camera, so there is no location data, and without a voice file there can be no associated commentary. I need GPS and voice I/O. For the moment I can see no alternative - and a keyboard just won't hack it. As for storage, well multiple hard drive back-ups and the occasional CD have fulfilled at least part of my resolution.

On the viewing side I have long since used pics on my laptop and other machines and I have an old laptop dedicated as an active picture frame with all our family pics continuously rolling around so at least they will be seen at some time. But more recently my son burned hundreds of pics onto a DVD so we could see the collection on our TV screen. I was surprised. I should have thought of it but I didn't! And it is a great way to use a screen that is mostly devoid of anything of interest.

For some reason I never owned an 8mm projector and have yet to buy a camcorder but I do have acres of documents and have also started to scan in all the paperwork I treasure before it too degrades, gets lost, thrown away or destroyed. As for generalised viewing, I'm looking at early applications that can display by chronology, location, event and subject matter.

We live on a timeline and pass through space but our life bits (pics, movies and documents) need not. We have never had the technology to do this before. It is a chance for an entirely new perspective on our past and that of others - provided we can keep up with the cataloguing.

This column typed on my iBook on BA285 over Oregon heading south. It resided on my hard drive for two weeks until I could get around to the final edit and despatched to from my home via my 2.5G mobile in the garden at Seckford Hall on a balmy summer evening over coffee.