Cultural Suicide via Digitalization

Many people, some of the techies, wrote about this week’s column.

Doug wrote:

I found your article on memory loss interesting and informative. I do, however, feel that you may have understated the problem. Long before we began storing information on temporary electronic media, we were using acidic paper, which doesn’t last much longer. Cloth paper can survive for centuries, but acid-bleached wood pulp paper decays in a matter of decades. Librarians and archivists refer to this problem as “slow fires” which are quietly destroying vast quantities of information all over the world. Some countries have begun to convert records stored on acid paper, but not all, and some will probably never have the funds to do so. Such books and records will eventually crumble to dust. Most paper produced since the late 19th century is doomed unless microfilmed or treated with chemicals. This problem was understood before electronic media became common, but nothing was learned from our earlier mistakes.

I have copies of newspapers from the early 1800s printed on paper that’s still clean and white. Cloth paper rocks. I wonder how long, say, paperbacks will last.

Peter wrote:

Read your piece. Correct. Paper trumps all.

Years ago when I was the editor of a trade magazine called “Instruments and Control Systems” I wrote an editorial entitled “The wave of the future is…Analog?” The piece had more to do with data display than the medium on which it was preserved but it made much the same points. As for display, when you look at your watch or speedometer, you don’t usually need to know that the time is 8:56:32 or your speed is 61.68 mph.
Takes more time for the mind to acquire that information than a quick glance that tells you it’s about 9 o’clock or your speed is about 62 mph. Human beings are analog devices.
Nothing tires me more than trying to read a long article off a computer display. Paper rules!

Technological design is so fucking cool because it deals with stuff that people do every day without thinking. Why does up mean the lightswitch is on? Does your DVD player really need an eject button on the remote control? I love that stuff. And yeah, reading a long piece on a screen sucks. I usually print them out because I miss too much if I don’t. I’d love to see a study of reading comprehension comparing how effectively readers process computer-read and paper-read media. If my hate mail is any indication, computer readers tend to miss more.

Phaedrus wrote:

What a great column!
I work in a state governmental library and the whiz-bang digital documents are a flying. We used to get all reports in old-fashioned paper but now, wow, the agencies are publishing to the Web! What’s that you say, you need last month’s report? Oh, we took that down to put up this month’s report. Those old reports are full of just dusty old numbers and stodgy facts. It is not new and improved. What did we do with the old one? I think we deleted it or something.
We get groups touring our library all the time and one of the “facts” the tour guides present is that oh all the information in these books is on the Web now! Oh really. Somebody has scanned and digitized all these old books? Really. And just where would one find them. Scary people think that if it is not on the Web, it does not exist. And when the majority of information is digital only, poof, facts will change and “history” will be malleable. Want to make 43 the greatest president of all time? Easy. The proof of WMD is in his digital presidential library.
Again, great column. By the way, I also enjoy your cartoons. Sometimes I laugh, sometimes I think, sometimes I get really pissed off. But, isn’t that what an editorial cartoon is supposed to do?

I love the above line about people expecting to find everything on the Web. Look, the Web is incredibly cool; I couldn’t imagine life without it. But I’m reminded of a column I wrote a few months ago citing the results of a CNN poll. Several people wrote to say that couldn’t find it anywhere, including on CNN’s website, and were thus doubting my accuracy. “I saw it on CNN,” I replied. “On TV.” No, not everything exists on the Web.

Kelan writes:

There is an upside to this destruction of data. Future generations (let me go out on a large limb here and say—- assuming there are any future generations) will not have to know that our society bought large numbers of disks for the shittiest crap ever written—–Madonna, Brittany Spears, N’Stink, etc.

It’s a point worth pondering. As things are now, there’s a terrible danger that that music will be considered classic someday, the way Dickens (who sucks) is considered classic now.

Clare wrote:

I’m a big fan. Started with your comics, now of your commentaries and blog. Your current commentary is right on the money. When I was studying to become a librarian, I visited the Supreme Court of Florida’s reference department. The archivist was tearing his hair out trying to keep players working for betamax and VHS formats (as all proceedings, by law, are recorded on video). Digital technology was just coming into use then. I’m sure he’s now working with DVDs. His office looked like a electro-techno-junkyard, as he was having to cannibalize old players just to keep working models to display his tapes. And they’re creating new material so fast he doesn’t have time to re-format.
This rush to computerize data is being done with all the deliberation of a cattle stampede. Little or no thought is being given to the technological implications involved.
As I browse our stacks (at the Brooklyn Public Library), it’s interesting to note that printed material from the 18th and early 19th century is in better shape than books published as recently as 20 years ago because it was published on rag paper, a medium that will outlive us all.
It’s also sad to see families transferring their old 8 mm films to VHS and now digital video in the belief that they’ll have a record of their families to past down to their heirs, when the current formats probably won’t survive them.
Your commentary should be required reading for anyone interested in archival preservation.

Thanks. People don’t seem to understand the magnitude of what’s out there. Let’s take music as an example. Each time we make a format change, from 78s to 33 LPs to CDs to MP3, the vast majority of music gets left behind. Big band music, for example, was recorded in vast numbers, but fewer than 1 percent of the genre will ever be rereleased on CD. True, most of the great classics of a genre are in sufficient demand that they will be adapted to a new format. But not all, not even close to all. A lot of stuff falls through the cracks. If Hollywood can’t even release all of Billy Wilder’s classic films on DVD, how the hell can we expect them to get all that Roger Corman stuff out?

Richard wrote:

An interesting article on an issue I’ve struggled with HREF=”http://www.livejournal.com/users/richardf8/38303.html”>some myself.

Ultimately, I think you can take comfort in some words of your own: “Moreover, while the majority of books printed 400 years ago have been destroyed, a few remain.” The ancient world had it’s own transient media too – wax tablets were used for note-taking in the Roman era. They, by and large, don’t survive. Also stuff of value or interest on the web quite often makes it into print, from webcomics to Darwin Awards. And much of the conversion of printed media to digital form that is taking place is being done to facilitate study of the manuscripts without subjecting the manuscripts themselves to the risks of handling. This is a GOOD thing for the preservation of culture.

Digitalization of manuscripts is smart. It’s replacing the creation of written paper manuscripts with digital files that I’m questioning.

Lakshminath wrote:

Excellent article on the storage industry and how we all rush to store everything we already have (e.g., throwing away faded 50-year old photographs after digitizing them) and the new data on new media and formats.
For my email, I refuse to use MS Outlook since it stores data in a proprietary format that can be changed at the whims of Bill, and instead use ASCII text format that has a longer life time. (format)
I think nations should find alternative means to archive samples of our history in various formats. Apparently Bill has a plan to digitize art works and provide us commonfolk with only digital versions of those works. (Note that there would be no guarantee whether we are seeing, or the future generations would be seeing actual artwork or Bill’s own rendering of it :-))
Anyway, great article.

Corporate control of information is another pressing issue.

Albert disagrees:

I usually agree with your positions—have even dropped acquaintances who took offense when I emailed them links to your columns. However, I must take exception with your assertion that digital media storage is doomed—or dooming. Your points about the fallibility of hard media storage are valid—CDs and DVDs fail over time, as do floppy disks and other magnetic media. This may or may not be a tragedy for an individual, depending on how assiduous they’ve been about backing up their data. However when it comes to archiving data, fallible hard media need not be an issue.
Beyond the optical and magnetic storage media you mentioned there now exists solid state electronic storage devices—the technology of the “thumb” drive—that are on a rapidly falling cost curve while providing increasingly greater storage density (bits per cubic inch). This means that we’ll soon not only be able to store our personal media on devices with no moving parts, but we’ll have access to cheap on-line storage services. We can begin to think of our content libraries more as digital rights to content stored on line, whether by such a service or by the content owners themselves. We may also have recourse to on-line repositories of our own digitally signed copies of said media with copy to hard media rights as well as play-out rights. Importantly, on-line data will be mirrored in geographically diverse facilities so that even in the event of a catastrophic failure our data will be preserved. Of course, we haven’t had ubiquitous access to such services until now that broadband access to becoming capacious enough to allow play out of multimedia files without the inconvenience of a cumbersome wait or undesirable performance due to inchoate networks.
Eventually we’ll see the costs of solid state storage reach price points for capacious enough devices that they will displace older, more fallible technologies in the consumer marketplace. We’ll see digital video recorder devices (like TiVo) rely on such storage rather than hard disk drives as they do today. Likewise we’ll see solid state iPods and the like with enough capacity to store full motion video and tunes alike—as well as a generalization to all digital media—photos, books, and vlogs. We’ll have solid state storage in our PCs for connected back-up and play out within our homes as well as recourse to hard copying to improved blue laser CDs and DVDs. And always, content owners will keep their digital masters in geographically diverse, mirrored and reliable storage facilities. Rather than see our cultural heritage crumble and fade, we’ll be able to preserve it reliably for posterity.
Finally, let’s not decry a technological revolution that’s still in its nascence. Since we’re talking about storage media, we should observe the incredible advances made only in the last 20 years. Remember the 12” floppy disk? How about the 20 MB hard drive? As we step up the ladder of innovation, we should migrate our content along with us. This must be an on-going project. We shouldn’t feel that once we’ve archived something on (say) a 650 MB CD-RW that we shouldn’t need to re-archive as new technology becomes available and that we shouldn’t have a back-up. This was the real tragedy at Alexandria and Pergamon, etc.: lack of redundancy. Sure, their paper lasted a long time, but couldn’t avoid a catastrophic failure. Now that we have swarming technology available to us the body of digital content eventually will be jointly held by the whole of connected humanity. A digital media asset will be stored in many anywheres and available everywhere. We may feel little need to amass our own huge collections of CDs, for example, and rely on the enormity of storage to which we’re connected. Look at the kids and their iTunes; they’re already showing us the way.

One thing I wish I’d included in my column is the fact that each format change requires people to convert old data to the new format if they wish to preserve it. In many, many cases, however, people either decide that it’s too much trouble to sift through all that “old stuff” or are clueless as to how to go about it. And as for that assertion that data can usually be retrieved after a crash, that hasn’t been my experience. The cost is usually high and the effectiveness is usually much less than zero. I lost an entire chapter of “Wake Up! You’re Liberal” for no reason whatsoever–my Word for Mac OS X seemingly believed that the huge word file was just one long word and wouldn’t allow me to edit “it.” Hard drive crashes have wiped me out. Ditto for most of my computer-using friends. Yes, computers rock. But you wouldn’t fly in a plane that worked as well as MS Word.

And Jim gets the last word:

Thanx for the info on the virtual uselessness of discs, I did not know that! But after thinking about it for a New York second, after our civilization is totally destroyed in a nuclear holocaust of inevitable epic proportions, whenever that may be. Being 53 and growing up with bomb shelters and the threat of impending doom back then from the Russians and now with al queda’s ideology of death, I’m not so sure any record of our civilization is of any importance. Upon close examination of our history of the last several millenia, what do you see? Let’s start with the Holocaust(being Jewish, a logical start), western civ is a myriad of wars, the Crusades, genocide after genocide, Rwanda, WW’s I & II, Viet Nam, Iwo Jima, 9/11, Hellenic Wars, a couple centuries of slavery ending only with an epic bloodbath. Albert Einstein was quoted, after decling an invitation to the Manhatten project salon, “I don’t know how this war will end, but if there is a WWIII, WWIV will be fought with sticks and stones”, wrap your mind around that! In light of the accomplishments of our great lunar landing, what remarkable benefits have we actually enjoyed from that feat at immeasurable costs. And finally, our current administration is such an immense embarassment, that any record of that for any future civilizations would reflect as personal disgrace for you and I to have been included as collateral participants, by happenstance of being born into it. So let the “historical documents” a la Galaxy Quest of South Park and Survivor and Big Brother 6 be stored on discs. It’s a good thing!
I love you Ted, so enjoy today, it’s all we ever have!

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