Nothing for posterity

We live the age of information and multimedia content. Nowadays more than 2 billion people are connected to the web and produce every day a billion terabytes of data, which is more or less 90% of those that have been produced in the last two years, although many data are in fact redundant or duplicate. An explosive exponential progression, no doubt, but how much of what we produce will really remain for posterity?

In practice, how much of everything that we publish on the web — texts, images, movies, music — will survive our death? By now Internet does not contain only what we publicly share, but thanks to the cloud technology, it also contains much of what we once had only inside our personal computers. How much will survive when we will no longer maintain all those pieces of information?

Just consider a painting. The prehistoric frescoes that have survived to the present day have 30 to 40 thousand years, since they were painted in the Paleolithic. Of course many survived only thanks to the particular conditions present in some caves; it is still a remarkable achievement anyway, as we shall see shortly. Indeed, if we compare the cave paintings with mural paintings, the latter have a much shorter life. Those of ancient civilizations, in fact, are from 5,000 to 2,000 years old: in general, however, a fresco has an average life ranging from 400 to 1,000 years, before beginning to significantly deteriorate, depending on how the support and the plaster, in particular, were prepared.

An oil painting on canvas or wood can also get to the millennium, but usually it has an average life between 200 and 500 years. Obviously it all depends on how it was stored, the temperature and humidity of the room where it was placed, if it remained for a long time in the dark or if it has been frequently exposed to sunlight. We must also consider how colors have been prepared: there are oil paintings that begin to deteriorate after only 50 years. Today, in fact, we use often also acrylic colors, but they have been invented only eighty years ago, so that it is difficult to say how long they can last before they change. It is likely, however, that they are much more resistant to both oil and tempera, so we can assume that a painting with acrylics can get to last several centuries, perhaps even a millennium.

What about photographs? Black and white prints are quite resistant but after a few decades they begin to fade. Color prints and slides are even more delicate. A color image printed on old photographic paper may begin to deteriorate after only 50 years. Much depends on whether it had a prolonged exposure to sunlight. The most recent color photo papers are supposed to last from 75 to 150 years, but they are quite recent to be certain. In any case, an image may fade away even after 40 years because of a long exposure to light, as for framed pictures.

If then the photo or the graphics is printed on normal paper with a common ink jet printer, the colors can already start to fade after 20 months. Typically an image printed in color on copy paper can last from 2 to 10 years before it begins to significantly deteriorate.

And a digital photo on the web? In theory it is almost eternal, since it could be duplicated many times on dozens of different systems. However, a single hard disk has an average life of 5 years and, if the image has not been duplicated, may be lost even before. The disks of many networked systems are used 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and therefore are subject to wear much more than a home system. On the other hand, the average life of a personal laptop, for example, is not characterized so much by its components’ lifetime rather by technological obsolescence: generally people change computers every 3 years, especially those who use them for work.

Here then is that our digital image, potentially eternal, could become the Cinderella of historical images, especially if we compare it with the cave paintings or funeral frescoes of the Ancient Egyptians. In practice, the pictures of your family posted on Facebook, Pinterest or Flickr might disappear from the web in less than ten years simply because nobody cares.

Nowadays archaeologists bring to light documents and works of art that have centuries if not millennia. Many are not works of great artists, but drawings and writings by ordinary people, like the graffiti that gladiators carved on walls waiting to fight in the arena. Thanks to them, we know much more about a past that would otherwise have disappeared. But if what we produce today will remain only when related to famous people, whereas what has been achieved by the common people will be irremediably removed from the web, would it not be better to return to paint on cave walls? Because at this point even the modern graffiti on the walls of the houses are likely to be short-lived, because now, in our cities, the old houses are often destroyed to make room to new buildings.

In practice, perhaps we live the age of information and multimedia content, but there is a good chance that very little will remain for posterity of everything we are now producing.

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