O’Reilly’s MacDevCenter blog recently ran a short article about the concerns over long-term preservation of today’s digital media.
It’s an interesting problem. In the olden days, before 1980 or so, the vast majority of “home” media came from a film camera. People typed (on a typewriter) or hand-wrote letters and stories and kept their paper copies in a desk drawer. A few years later, VHS camcorders started making inroads, but almost nobody edited their tapes — partly because it would require three decks, and partly because it would degrade the already mediocre video quality. Here in the 21st Century, we have digital media coming out of our ears (actually going in our ears... think iPod) but I’m still waiting for the tours to Saturn.
But we face a very real issue of impermanence. A while back, I mentioned finding several short stories I wrote in college; some were typed (on an old “portable” Smith-Corona manual typewriter) and some were hand-written. I also have one and a half novels I wrote back then (longhand). All of them were on paper, and had survived over 20 years of storage. Whatever I wrote on a Commodore 64 in the mid-80s didn’t fare so well. Printed digital photos tend to fade over time, and exposure to sunlight hastens their demise — compare that to black&white film photos that have survived 100 years. Videotape can last several decades if stored properly, but dropouts accumulate over time and make the video that much harder to recover. That haircut video I burned to DVD, or those copies of stories and photos burned to CD, are good for a couple of decades if stored properly. On the other hand, check out what can happen to a CD that gets kicked around in a car for a little while:
Those spots are in the CD, not on it. You can’t polish that out. If you want your disks to last, keep them in a cool, dry, dark place.
There are a couple of bright spots: first, there’s just so dang much digital media being cranked out, by you and me and everyone else, that some of it is bound to make it to our grandchildren. Next, if you can solve the “bit-rot” problem (that’s a technical term), future generations could have access to perfect copies of our narratives — no faded photos, no text obscured by stains or yellowing, video as good (or bad) as the day it was taken.
Digital media is much easier to back up; for example, there are plenty of services dedicated to sharing digital photos — and those photos you share are also stored on a disk that isn’t in your house. There are analogous services for video and even text (you’re looking at one of the latter right now), and I even have a little program that lets me use my Gmail account to stash files in one of its folders (yes, my stories are backed up!). Someone truly fanatical about saving their text or photos could print them (even in black&white) on acid-free paper and have (physically) distant relatives keep a copy — if you lose your originals, you could at least OCR the text and scan the photos.
Backing up is easy, but most people don’t do it (or in my case, don’t do it as thoroughly as I should). If you need motivation, try this: you’re one hard drive crash away from losing all of your pictures, video, music, and writings.