Early this year I wrote an article comparing how we store music in digital versus analog form along with a followup article exploring the contrast between them. There is another major consideration that predominates when it comes recording information these days. Quite simply: what are we going to record onto?
How many of you remember (or have even seen) eight-inch floppy disks? How about five-and-a-quarter floppies? Show of hands if you’ve ever actually used a three-and-half inch floppy? Some of you might not even know what a “floppy disk” is!
Not very permanent, were they. Now consider the Rosetta Stone.
Or original portfolios of Shakespeare’s plays. Also all paintings and sculptures. And most books (although made with cheap paper don’t last as long as well-made books, some of which are hundreds of years old).
Back in 1977, when I began my relationship with computers, I stored my work on punched paper tape. Or I could print my work on a noisy, slow printer. Over the years the paper tape evolved through modulated sounds on cassette tapes to various sizes of floppy disks and hard drives, to Zip and CD-ROM drives, to “thumb” drives, and lately to “the network,” and now “the cloud.”
Always there was, and is, the possibility of printing the work on paper. I found myself doing that less and less over the years, in large part due to how quickly the printouts became obsolete. In some cases, I’d spot an error while walking it from the printer back to my desk, and that made the entire handful obsolete while the paper was still warm!
I found, too, that I lost the need for a printout over the years. For many of the first years, it was possible to spend futile hours chasing a bug on the screen. I could stare at code until my eyes crossed without managing to see the error.
Then — and this happened a lot — I’d print the code, thinking I could look at it over lunch or at home. Almost every time the bug would almost leap off the paper. Something about the printout — the physical paper in hand — made the bug easy to spot.
Over time I got much better at finding my bugs on the screen, so the need for printouts declined, plus there was that whole immediate obsolescence thing which, despite paper re-cycling, seemed wasteful.
I suspect what happened is that displays finally reached “printout” quality. Fonts improved tremendously. (What I’m looking at as I type this looks about as good as any printout. The recent “retina displays” are as good as any printed material.)
But here’s the thing: Every printout I ever made (and kept for memory sake) is still perfectly readable and perfectly usable. Given a good document scanner (and they’ve gotten very good these days), I might not even have to do much typing.
But I no longer have any working machine capable of reading floppy disks of any size. Nor do I have a Zip drive. I can still read any CD-ROMs I made (at least for now). On the other hand, we know that digital discs do deteriorate over time; no Rosetta stone they.
It would be hard (outside a museum) to find a reader for those punched paper tapes I still have. They do have the distinction that you can see the holes, so it would be possible (if incredibly tedious) to recover the information.
There’s another problem when it comes to digital data: It’s just numbers, and numbers can mean anything. The numbers have to be understood the right way to make any sense at all of them. If you can’t interpret them, they’re just random numbers.
The issue is digital format. Reading old digital data requires knowing its format (and having a reader capable of reading the physical medium). It generally also requires the software capable of reading that format from that reader and presenting it as data the computer can use.
Now that video has become so popular, the problem expands due to the wide variety of digital formats for video. It’s possible to preserve the numbers as is — to copy them to new locations — but it’s also possible the formats involved become obsolete, poorly supported or even set aside. Those carefully preserved numbers can become meaningless.
On the other hand, the digital world often seems to filled with daily new content, much of it ephemeral, so perhaps saving it all is pointless.
The effort required to take a photo (remember film and having it developed?) has become utterly trivial. Video recorders have gone from person-sized studio cameras to bulky on-the-shoulder cameras to tiny HD devices you can put in your pocket. We live in a world filled with video cameras, and we are awash in video.
The end result is a massive glut of content. Everyone is a content producer now. It requires a few simple gestures (clicks or swipes or key taps) to publish that content for all the world to see (or even just your circle of 50,000 followers).
It brings us to an interesting point in time — something new under the sun. And it creates a conundrum: With so many people producing so much content on a daily basis, how do we separate the wheat from the chaff? How do we find needles in haystacks?
The internet river is wide, deep and fast. What streams past today is far downstream tomorrow. I’ve come to realize that, for example, blog posts from a year ago are lost in the mists of history. Who seeks out old blog posts when a hundred new ones come by every day?
I used to save interesting links with the intent of looking at them later. But new interesting links come along every day, so “later” never comes and the list just grows and grows.
What kind of mindset exists in a world that rushes by so quickly and which is so filled with content? What is the end result of all this ephemeral information?
John Naisbitt, in 1982, wrote that: “We are drowning in information, but we are starved for knowledge.” Thirty-two years later, that has never been more true.