Relax, your photos are in the sky (but I’ve burned a CD just in case)

The conversation in our household goes like this:

Me: I’m clearing the digital camera. Its memory’s nearly full.

My spouse: I don’t like the idea that all our photos are just on the computer.

Me: Well they’re safer there than in tatty envelopes under the bed…

Spouse: Yes, but why can’t we print them all out?

Me: … and I’ve got them all on Flickr. You can print them off the internet any time you like.

Spouse: You know what, that doesn’t make me feel any better…

I wanted to know where my photos would be safer – “in the sky”, or in a shoebox. 30 minutes of Googling later, I have the answer.

According to my local Fire Service, there were 17.2 “calls to accidental dwelling fires per 10,000 dwellings” in 2005-06. That’s odds of 581 to 1 that we’ll suffer a house fire. Obviously, the shoebox could survive unscathed, but then again it’s subject to other risks such as flooding, theft and shredding by toddlers, so I reckon the fire statistic is a pretty good proxy for the risks to photos stored physically in the home.

As for Flickr, well it’s owned by Yahoo! Inc, a multibillion dollar US company with an exclamation mark in its name. Let’s assume they take good care of our pictures unless they run into serious financial difficulties. Yahoo!’s (or is that “Yahoo’s!”?) corporate credit rating is a just-about-investment-grade BBB-. For this grade, the Average Default Rate Within One Year of Rating (1970-2001) is apparently about 0.15%. Satisfyingly, that works out at a 666 to 1 chance of Yahoo! defaulting on its debt and taking my photos down with it.

So actually, the chances are pretty comparable. The sky shades it a little over the shoebox. Better still, I can really keep things safe by doing both. It seems safe to assume the two variables are independent – that is, my house burning down wouldn’t make it any more or less likely that Yahoo! goes! belly! up! In that case there’s only a 387,333 to 1 chance of both catastrophes occuring in the same year. Some back-up dividend!

I’m more likely (370,035 to 1) to die choking on food.

[Scary afterthought: Maybe I’m now destined to be poisoned by fire-raising Yahoo! acolytes enraged by my mockery of their carefree approach to punctuation?]

The logic of online storage seems compelling, but it may not be enough. No matter the hypothetical benefits of having stuff stored in a cloud, people exhibit strong attachments to having personal data in forms they can touch: prints, CDs, DVDs, and so on.

Is this just a hangover of a bygone age, something that will be ironed out as the iPod generation goes totally digital? Or is the need for tangible assets a deeply held one that we need to incorporate into online services to ensure their long-term adoption? What are the chances?

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