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Isn’t “digital archive” an oxymoron?

Monday 7 December 2009
Oriel Window, William Fox Talbot

Oriel Window, William Fox Talbot. The 1835 original paper negative.

Has anyone stopped to consider that digital storage and archive technologies are incongruent with  modern business practices that include obsolescence – planned or otherwise?.

The interesting thing about archaic things like books, is that they can still be viewed and read centuries after their creation. While some require translation from Latin, Olde English/French/German to modern languages, the books can still be easily viewed without any technological barrier beyond a pair of cotton gloves. Consider this – if you had written your magnum opus 25 years ago and saved it to the most up-to-date technology of the time- a 5″ floppy – you would not be able to read it today. It would be effectively lost and almost unretrievable except through great expense. If you had printed it on paper – you would still have it today and for centuries in the future.

What ever means we use today for digital archive is on a pathway to oblivion within, perhaps, years to a decade. Take format, for example: do you own anything that will read a 5″ floppy from the 1980s. You might still have a 3.5″ floppy reader from the 1990s – but for how much longer will it be supported? Even large corporations don’t have 5″ floppy technology.

For sake of argument, let’s say you have the hardware to read old floppies, how about the application needed to read old files? It’s bad enough even today that anything saved in WordPerfect or Microsoft Works cannot be read by most word processing applications. What about word processing apps that are now defunct? – ClarisWorks comes to mind. Even older versions of the omnipresent Word can prove difficult to open and read.

Now, add to this the rapidly changing operating systems, drivers and apps that are not carrying forward the code for older models of computers (and just as well as OSs become quite bloated, otherwise). Perhaps its the drivers more than anything that will prevent users from plugging old technology into new. Take my 1999 scanner – it’s still as good as anything out there because I’ve grown with it in my knowledge of how to scan effectively. However, there will come a time when the drivers are no longer supported by newer operating systems. It will become a piece of electronic junk – ewaste – not because it doesn’t work or is obsolete, but because the manufacturer would prefer that I buy a new one so they stop updating the code needed for it to work.

Let’s face it, our economy depends on us throwing things out and replacing them with “newer and better”. Companies depend on our computers and software becoming obsolete so that we keep buying. This is insane, not just for the environment (we’e all seen the mountains of e-waste), but also for the longevity of digital works.

I’m a photographer. I’m on my third DSLR and looking forward to when 24mp becomes affordable. But, for how long will the applications I use continue to support files made on my first DSLR. Thank goodness Adobe is trying to standardize file formats on the open source DNG file type. But in then end, years down the road, will my hard drives be readable? My DVDs? What I foresee is a constant upgrading of formats that large corporations can afford but the average person or small business has neither the time nor the money for. Democratization through computing dies at the level of the individual – the very level at which democracy is supposed to work.

On the other hand, maybe that’s a good thing. While we all feel we have something to contribute to society at large, most of it is drivel anyway. My concern is that the really valuable stuff that is being saved is being determined by its popularity (you know, all those dreadful Top Ten lists and the kind of crap that sells supermarket tabloids) and not its inherent value for moving society forward in a thoughtful, constructive way.  What company has the resources for “thoughtful” and “constructive” when their bean counters are saying “we need popular to maintain our bottom line”. “Thoughtful” and “constructive” are not on the radar of the popular media which survives by selling ad space to the very companies that are perpetuating obsolescence.

So where does that leave us? Is there a company out there that will somehow come up with a digital format that can be made “future-safe” like books and manuscripts are today? I hope so! Perhaps Adobe’s DNG format is the way to go.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Rune permalink
    Tuesday 29 December 2009 2:15pm

    Hi Terry !

    I’ve also dwelled on the issue of storing my images or rather my documents in a “future-proof” way. I think I started thinking about this in the middle of the 90’s and I haven’t found an easy answer. My current strategies is partly based on looking at institutions, like museums, that professionally have had to deal with these issues for many years.

    The PDF format is the cornerstone of my document storage strategy. But JPEG, TIF, PNG, MPEG-2 and MPEG-4 are part of my toolset. I store my information on multiple storage units at home and of course at other locations, “the cloud”. I also put much work into defining metadata labels which is an area often overlooked. And as new storage media evolves I copy the files to the new formats, while keeping the old media.

    I am quite sure that by adhering to international archive formats and those that used by many, like DVDs…, people will be able to open those files for at least a couple of centuries. But beyond that, who knows.

    Regards Rune

  2. Wednesday 1 December 2010 2:10pm

    Ich bemerke gerade in diesem Moment dass ich deinen Blog wesentlich öfter lesen müsste 😉 – da komme ich wirklich auf super Ideen

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