Keeping an orderly personal data collection has many benefits, including that it’s easier to identify what’s most valuable. With this knowledge, it becomes easier to keep your most important data safe from damage or loss. But even if you have good backups in place, how permanent are those backups? Who maintains them? How much will it cost to keep that level of reliability for 10 years? What about 30 years? What about forever?
Modern digital computing has only been around for 50 years or so, if we’re being generous. During that time—a mere blip compared to all of human history—technology has made multiple significant advances that make previous iterations obsolete and sometimes difficult or impossible to access. Even those of us who remember using older storage technology would find those devices hard to use with modern computers. The nerdiest among us might have confidence that we can transfer our data from aging to updated storage on a regular basis, but most others might not be so sure.
Establishing a Digital Legacy
Most of us probably don’t care to keep 90% of our digital possessions for more than a few years. The very idea of keeping something for decades might even make us laugh. But at the same time, certain things might be worth keeping for that long. After all, digital items can function as family heirlooms just as much as physical ones.
If we want to keep our most important and precious data intact—not just for years, but for decades, or even generations—we must solve two distinct problems:
- Maintain reliable storage.
Obviously, any data we want to keep must reside somewhere. But what’s the shelf life of typical storage media such as CDs, DVDs, mechanical hard drives, magnetic tape, or even the newest solid-state drives using flash memory? These devices retain data for less time than you might think. Replacing aging gear on a regular basis and verifying the integrity of each new copy is straightforward, but can become expensive and time-consuming. Relying on cloud storage and external services makes this easier, but there are trade-offs.
- Maintain readability.
As technology changes, so do file formats. Files saved with cutting-edge programs from 20 or 30 years ago might be practically inaccessible with modern software. File formats fall out of common use, and relevant conversion tools don’t always exist. Over a long enough timeframe, any file will most likely get harder and harder to access with the latest hardware and software. To combat this, you must periodically convert your data from older to newer formats.
In light of this, you have two basic options for data meant to last generations: either be your own custodian or else get someone else to do it.
The geeks among us will most likely choose the first option, since it’s not terribly hard if you know what you’re doing. However, even for the technically inclined, a self-managed “forever” archive still carries some risk. Devices fail, processes fail, or in the worst case, you fail. Do you have a backup person lined up in case something happens to you?
The other option requires outsourcing that part of your digital legacy management to someone else. You might choose this because you lack confidence in your own abilities, or because you don’t want to spend time on it, or simply as an extra backup to be kept under someone else’s charge. You might choose a willing friend or family member to do this, or seek out a company.
Enter FOREVER Storage
Perhaps surprisingly, as of this article’s latest update, there aren’t many consumer-oriented businesses that focus specifically on long-term digital custodianship. One company that has developed a service designed to help keep data accessible through regular conversion and modern software is FOREVER.com:
(NOTE: These links are not affiliate links, as I have not personally used Forever before and won’t attempt to get any financial kickbacks from something I haven’t tried myself. But the services look valuable to me and I am strongly considering some of them.)
Forever permanently stores media for a lifetime, ensuring that all data is secure and available for future generations. While dozens—if not hundreds—of cloud storage providers exist, Forever uniquely focuses on multi-generational persistence and access. Their “Forever Guarantee” claims the following:
We guarantee that the memories you store with FOREVER® Permanent Cloud Storage will be preserved, protected, and available for your lifetime plus 100 years, with a goal of keeping your content safe and available as you have determined for many generations beyond.https://www.forever.com/guarantee
In addition to permanent data storage, they also provide digitization services and other related help. But perhaps most interesting for Tidy Bytes readers is their Historian photo and video management software. It stands on its own for local photo organization, but also integrates with their permanent data storage offerings for photos and videos. Historian also includes handy features like facial recognition and image touch-up capabilities. (Unfortunately for Mac users, Historian currently only works on Windows.)
Forever‘s offerings (including their Historian software) come at a high price point compared to less future-focused cloud storage providers. A mere 50 GB of storage, which Apple charges $2.99/month for on their iCloud platform, will set you back nearly $500 as a single one-time fee. That seems utterly ridiculous, honestly. But before dismissing the cost outright, consider what you actually get:
- Monthly cloud storage generally focuses on near-term data access. That monthly cost continues as long as you use the platform. If you live for 50 more years, $2.99/month becomes $1,794. Will 50 GB of cloud storage cost $2.99/month for the next 50 years? Absolutely not. Storage always gets cheaper. But the point stands: Forever’s permanent storage cost is one-time, whereas almost every other provider will charge every month.
- Permanent outside hosting also means you don’t have to keep updating your own storage hardware. At home, you probably wouldn’t be able to keep the same physical storage media intact for more than a decade or so. This means you have to factor in the cost of replacing storage drives (perhaps $50-100 each time, on average).
- Forever’s custodianship is designed for long-term access. They don’t just give you a place to put your photos and videos; they’ve created a media organization platform purpose-built to stay around for decades, without any hiccups and without requiring any maintenance, upgrades, additional payments, or other work from you. This is notably different from typical platforms like iCloud, Dropbox, and others.
For an interesting analysis done by someone who uses their services and software, check out this post from Deb Rodriguez of Deb’s Digital Tips. (She is affiliated with Forever and will get a kickback if you sign up through her, but her analysis is not unfair.)
Is Forever worth the premium price tag? That depends on your priorities, your abilities, and how you choose to spend your time. As I noted earlier, I haven’t decided whether to try it myself. But I’m certainly intrigued, and somewhat tempted. Maybe you don’t have any digital data that you feel motivated to keep around long after you’re gone. Maybe the price point is out of reach, or so high that you wouldn’t consider it regardless of your finances. Or maybe you’d rather take long-term digital custodianship into your own hands—a perfectly logical choice, if you know how.
But if you happen to be in a situation where your desires, priorities, and finances are all aligned, perhaps Forever is worth it for you.
Do One Thing
Think about whether you would choose to keep any of your personal data around long enough to be passed on to future generations, given the option. If so, consider whether you would rather manage that yourself somehow, or use a service like Forever—even if you wouldn’t sign up right away.
Perhaps this question is so far outside of your current concerns that it seems irrelevant. But even if that’s true right now, at least you’re aware that the option exists. Your priorities might change in the future!