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The real cost of the digital age

We live in a digital age. There is no doubt about that. Computers incapable of storing even 5 MB of data once occupied giant rooms. Today, even the entry-level iPhone can store over 5,000 pictures and videos.

Unlike film, JPEG files do not rot. Unlike paper photos, JPEG files are coffee-stain proof. Sure, the physical medium that stores those files will degrade over time, but modern storage mediums are built with degradation in mind. You will lose data by malware before your hard drive will ever rot. You will lose data through accidental deletion before your solid-state drive will fail. Gone are the days of long, printed photo books.

Any technological advancement brings costs no one could anticipate. I am not here to discuss the costs to our privacy, though concerns over that specific matter are not unwarranted in this post-Snowden world. There is a real, quantifiable price to keeping memories in this digital age.

Growing up, most of my significant life events have been digitally documented. From videos of my first ever choir solo to pictures of my high school graduation, everything is neatly organized by events and date, sorted by name

To date, I own over 2 TB worth of personal mementos and creative projects. Storing that amount of data is not an easy task. Cloud services are no longer cost-efficient over 2 TB and custom solutions make zero sense under at least 16 TB.

The cost of storing 2 TB of data on the cloud varies between service providers. Google Drive and Apple’s iCloud both offers a plan at $9.99 per month while Dropbox offers their plan at $11.99 per month Custom, on-premise solutions require the technical knowledge of building and configuring your own storage server or ordering a pre-built solution at a much higher cost.

Cheaper solutions geared toward personal use exist, though these are less reliable and less capable than commercial solutions. The cost of building a storage server varies with the software configurations and the hard drive configurations, though generally, they start at around $2,500 without the hard drives. The base cost of installing custom solutions, or even name-brand residential solutions, are a joke on that small of a scale.

Storing 2 TB of data, in theory, is better done in the cloud. In practice, the types of data matter. Documents and pictures can be stored anywhere. They are small and compact. Even raw files straight out of professional cameras are only hundreds of megabytes in size. The same cannot be said about video files.

The recording of my senior year musical, “The Addams Family,” is a sizable 7.33 GB. That occupies almost half of the capacity of a free tier storage plan on Google Drive. Storing my videos and creative projects in the cloud is not an option, even with the unlimited storage tier. Uploading data at that scale is challenging. Even in 2019, downloading 7.33 GB of data is a lot easier than uploading it.

Unfortunately, maintaining our data will never be cheap. Hard drives fail, cloud solutions change pricing models, file formats go out of favor. With any of these events, we have to put more money and energy into preserving our digital memories. The costs only grow with time as physical medium nears their end-of-life and as our data repository grows in size.

Even Google feels the cost of storing large files. Teams at Google developed size efficient image and video formats in 2010. A few years ago, YouTube fully adopted these formats for supported browsers (all major browsers currently supports the format). The cost of these formats are no longer in size, it is in computing capabilities. I may no longer be able to stream YouTube videos from my high school Chromebook, but I can download a significant number of them into the minuscule storage in it.

This battle between size cost and computing cost makes little difference for consumers. At the end of the day, consumers have to drop hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in both storage capacity and computing capacity. For people like me, there is no other choice. Our memories are digital. We do not have photo books. Instead, we have folders upon folders of digital pictures and videos. We will continue to spend hundreds of dollars in storage capacity, all in the name of personal memories.

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The Scout is published by members of the student body of Bradley University. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the University.