Our digital heritage, but, for how long?

The thing with technology is that it never slows down. Technology marches on and, for the most part, we embrace and move with it.  That means our methods of preserving our heritage, from books to music to art and entertainment, changes with that technology.

For over a hundred years, we were mostly an analog society. For centuries prior, our method for recording things consisted of cave art, stone tablets and printed material on different forms of paper. The printing press revolutionized our ability to produce printed material for the masses.

In the late 1700’s, humans began experimenting with methods for recording things both visually and aurally. Photography came to practicality in the mid 1800’s, while methods for recording sound followed in the latter half of the 1800’s. Radio and crude television followed. Moving pictures were perfected around the 1890’s.

By the 1920’s, we were enjoying most of our modern forms of entertainment: radio, television, film, recorded music and plays, etc.  And, for the most part, the technologies, while getting better in quality, pretty much stayed the same. In fact, the basic principals did not change. Once could take an early phonograph, from, say, 1915, and play it on a turntable made in the 1980’s and you could understand it.

Better forms of recording both audio and pictures came along, but were still analog and, mostly, interchangeable. Magnetic recording was stagnant through the 1980’s.  It was the latter part of that decade where it all started to change.

Something called ‘digital’ began to force its way into both our lexicon and our lives.

Indeed, today, we have digital television, digital music, digital films (kind of ironic, that name is) and digital photography.  Our lives are digital now.

And that’s the problem.

How do we preserve our heritage?  Clearly, digital is NOT the answer.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I have zero desire to give up my Zune MP3 player for a bulky Walkman cassette or 45rpm disc. I like my Nikon DLSR and HD television is way better than 250 line, black and white tv.

So, since I am such a digital person, what the hell do I mean that it is not the answer? Well, simply, it changes too quickly.

I recently came upon a box of old computer gear that I brought with me to my new home (well, it was new to me, two years ago!) In the box, there were a few diskettes, an iOMEGA Zip Disk, and some old CD-ROMS.  I also have a number of LaserDiscs and a box of about two hundred VHS tapes.  This made me think: I better transfer what I can to DVD before I can no longer do so. Some of those tapes are of my son as a baby as well as some now deceased family members. I also have years of recorded material from a local television station that no longer exists.

So, if I transfer this material now, I buy, what, maybe ten years before I can no longer play those DVD’s. Then what? I keep reading that physical media is dead. What do I do with my memories?

I have gigabytes of photos. I cannot, realistically, print them all. I could burn them to DVD, but, again, what about when DVD drives become scarcer than a Baird television scanner?

I also realized that I am not alone here. And it is not just individuals either. What about museums? Governments? Hell, Hollywood will have the same issue: many television shows and movies are now shot on video and distributed electronically.  Those formats and storage mechanism will not last. What happens to them?  In a hundred years, hence, we could still play back Edison’s old movies: they are, after all, images on film. Film, as long as it is properly stored, will last a very long time and the means to view it are simple. The same cannot be said for that YouTube video I uploaded last fall. Bits and bytes are not ‘real’. They cannot be shone through a bright light and viewed.

This is going to be a real problem going forward.  How do we rectify numerous storage methods, mechanisms and, more importantly, the bloody digital rights management schemes to keep us honest?

The funny thing about our digital society is what would be left if something catastrophic occurred and rendered our electronic means of playback useless.  We would be able to watch the Marx Brothers and Birth of a Nation, but not listen to Justin Bieber or watch Twilight. Hmm…maybe that would not be such a bad thing after all.

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