two glowing green boxes with dollar signs and photos
Endless storage is anything but. (Image: Archi Banal)

InternetNovember 4, 2023

The true cost of your digital memories

two glowing green boxes with dollar signs and photos
Endless storage is anything but. (Image: Archi Banal)

 It’s easy to take hundreds of photos, or save hundreds of messages, without thinking about the cost. But the vision of unlimited digital space isn’t as breezy as the word ‘cloud’ implies. 

For the last few months I’ve been living with a sense of impending doom. About the usual things – Antarctic sea ice melting, the inevitability of being ruled by someone called Chris, but also this: my Gmail account is almost out of space. I get a passive-aggressive reminder every few days now. “Hey, your Google account is nearly out of space! You need storage to upload files, save photos and send and receive email.” Beneath this ominous yellow warning is the sell – if I pay now, I can get a Google One subscription to have storage for the rest of my life. 

As I’ve watched the percentage of Google’s free storage creep slowly up over the last few months, I’ve been relentlessly deleting. At any given time, there are at least 400 deleted emails in my trash folder. A review of a film from 2021 obliterated. A science journal newsletter about cancer in tortoises tapped into the digital rubbish bin. A receipt from a novel I bought in 2018 disappears. 

picture of a lot of emails being deleted and a google storage advertisement. Shanti reveals that she has a android phone and a windows computer.
You can delete emails by the hundreds and still run out of storage – on Google and Microsoft. (Screenshots: Shanti Mathias)

The struggles of digital storage, and its limits, are familiar to Valerie Love, a digital archivist at Wellington’s National Library. “I have a 20-minute train ride to work and I’ll go through my photos, maybe keep two out of 12, then delete, delete, delete the 30 photos I took to get the right image.” 

It’s not exactly what I expected to hear from an archivist dedicated to preservation. Globally, estimates say that 120 zettabytes (a billion terabytes) of data will be created this year; the library holds 603 terabytes in its digital collection, which is not even a fraction of the material they could archive, even though they add to it constantly. But digital files are hard work; Love describes her work as “triage”, determining what can and can’t be kept.

“Digital files are much more fragile and ephemeral than paper,” she says. “When you have a paper document, you don’t have to think much about it if it’s away from water and fire, but digital material needs ongoing care. You need equipment, software, electricity – there are all these dependencies that a printed photo doesn’t have because you can look at it without technology.” 

a woman with short red hair and a black tshirt smiling at the camera
Digital archivist Valerie Love knows what it’s like to deal with abundant digital files (Photo: Supplied)

When the library is given files on floppy discs, for instance, they need to have the right software to read those files. They do a virus scan, obviously, and notate what formats and applications are required to access those files. They can’t harm or alter the files, because that would damage the integrity of the archive. The National Library collects information that is relevant to all New Zealanders; its previous projects have included collecting everything tweeted with the hashtag “Covid19nz”, as a record of how the pandemic impacted daily life in Aotearoa. 

The library’s digital archives are assiduously backed up. It uses cloud storage in both Wellington and Auckland, and those backups are also backed up, as well as the copies in the library. “It’s best practice to have at least three copies of a file and all those copies in different places; digital files can come and go really quickly.” 

But most people’s digital files are not collections of national interest. Love knows this. “A photo of a vegan scone with my coffee, if that photo disappears it’s fine – no one in 30 years will care what my morning tea looks like.” 

lots of very similar photos of people wearing red raincoats on a snowy mountain
No-one needs dozens of the same photo; Love says that this series from a trip to Ruapehu is an example of what could be deleted. (Photo: Supplied)

When I describe my storage dilemma, she is sympathetic. “Most of us don’t think about our digital files much at all, but they can really really build up.” Indeed: I have had my Gmail account since I was nine years old. A few years of hectic daily emailing to my friend in the UK; many many emails from the blogs I loved as a teenager. Once I left high school and got a cellphone, the archive started to grow, mostly because of photos.

Now, a widget on my phone presents me with reified memories – if I remembered to photograph them. I like seeing the hundreds of photos I took out the window of the uni library while studying or flattering photos of my eyeliner from the anticipatory hour before a party. When I take photos, I see them at once as some way to capture the present, and also a reminder of things beautiful and strange for my future self and her boring days. 

“The photo services and social media companies are heavy on nostalgia,” Love says. “My thing is: you can’t trust social media companies to take care of it for you – they’re in it to make money, not to preserve photos.” Files shared on previous social media companies, like Bebo, often evaporate. 

But nostalgia costs – at least if it involves digital storage. After you’ve exceeded the free 15GB, Google’s cheapest plan is $3.50 a month; Apple and Google both offer 5GB of storage for free, then Microsoft charges $3 a month; Apple’s is $1.69, but you get half the storage that Microsoft and Google offer. “Most people will throw five bucks at it a month because that feels easier than actually managing their files,” Love says. Even her own personal digital files aren’t as well organised as those she cares for at work – she had to scroll through a lot of excited pictures of games at the recent Fifa World Cup to decide which ones she wanted to keep. 

You can store your photos on social media, but that has a cost

You’re also paying with your privacy. “Why do companies give you things for free? It’s because you’re the product, and the data they’re getting out of you is incredible,” says David Zanetti, chief technology officer of Aotearoa-based cloud provider Catalyst Cloud. Zanetti has young children, and he is sometimes alarmed that in the photos he takes of them, he is already marking pieces of them for the internet to remember. To a company like Google, your cherished memories – or just your useful receipts – are offerings surrendered to the maw of their bottom line, your data monetised for their advertising behemoth.

Beyond the data you can access about yourself, there are also potentially hundreds of thousands more kilobytes of your interactions with private corporations around the internet, like the tent you got all the way to checkout before deciding not to buy it. “There’s no good solutions to all that data generation we don’t realise is happening,” Love says. 

“People are surprised the paid services are not as cheap, but I’ve always felt … it’s better to pay than get it for free.” Zanetti isn’t surprised, though, that more people don’t opt out of paying the equivalent of digital rent on a storage unit to keep their memories alive. “If you don’t have to do anything and it just [uploads to the cloud], people will continue to do it that way – the convenience factor drives it a lot.”

When I talk to Zanetti, I’m teetering on the edge of giving up on the deletion project and just surrendering to another subscription fee. After I talk to him, I just want to dig out my terabyte hard drive and archive the files that matter there. 

Because there’s another cost to keeping gigabytes of digital memories, too. “If you want a computer to do something, it will use electricity,” Zanetti says. “There’s a saying that computers turn electricity into heat and produce some useful work on the side.” Seemingly infinite cloud storage has a huge environmental impact. 

To try to imagine the incredible amount of electricity cloud storage warehouses require, Zanetti does some back-of-the-envelope maths. “A phone charger is around 25 to 30 watts while it’s charging. A cloud facility is operating in the megawatts – the starting point is maybe a million cellphones, and it will go up from there.”

The fluffy language helps. The word cloud “is ethereal and vague and no one has a concrete definition of what it is”, Zanetti says. But the reality of cloud storage is rooms full of warm servers, the whirr of fans and air conditioning to keep it at a temperature that lets them function. Valerie Love is frank. “Many files are not worthy of all that digital backup; it takes resource and there is an environmental toll.” 

a cool blue toned room with dark glowing servers in it
The ‘cloud’ is actually warehouse full of silent screenless servers (Image: Getty)

Cloud storage in New Zealand is relatively OK for the environment, since most of its electricity comes from non-fossil fuel sources. Many of Cloud Catalyst’s clients are government agencies keen to keep their data on shore. But Google doesn’t have any cloud storage in New Zealand at the moment, and neither does AWS, the other biggest provider, although both are intending to build data centres here. When you’re using these global services, you don’t know where your data is being stored – but since coal and gas fossil fuels source the majority of electricity generation around the world, there’s a pretty good chance that it is contributing to the climate crisis. 

It’s hard to give up the habit, though. The design of smartphones, with increasingly higher-resolution cameras that take up more space on the phone, and shiny screens with bright clear colours, is meant to incentivise you to take lots of photos – and preferably upload them to the cloud, somewhere someone can make a profit from them. It’s difficult for me to express why I like scrolling through memories of things I cooked four years ago, although the poignancy of pictures with people I love is easier to articulate. Isn’t it the same thing as the neatly labelled photo albums on the shelf at my parents’ house, delineating life and loves in images and years? 

“We live in an age of documentation,” Love says. Future archivists might have more information about what life in the 2020s looked like than any point before now, but that’s only if the data lasts. “Your phone isn’t meant to last forever – that’s how capitalism works.” Not every digital file is going to last, which makes taking care of memories individually all the more important. “Every digital object you create, the data goes somewhere. We can all be more mindful about how to create and store data.” 

Digital memories, where there is perfect control over what images and messages are kept and which are deleted, has a cost. It may be a more fallible storage method, but memories don’t have to be consigned to the internet. In your brain, the past is always free. 

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