Tuesday, August 22, 2006
Upgrades and Loss
Her resume and cover letter are on a 3.5 inch floppy disk. Our computer doesn't have a floppy drive (memory key, check; cd writer, check; floppy, nope). My work computer doesn't have a floppy drive. Library computers don't have floppy drives. It's remarkably hard to find a floppy drive.
Since the format isn't really all that old, I'm sure I'll dig up something, somewhere. But I can't help but wonder about a larger issue.
I have hardcover books from the 1920's. They're perfectly readable now, if a bit dusty. I've got an embarrassingly large collection of nonfiction paperbacks dating from the 1960's and 1970's, all still perfectly readable. But a disk from 2003 necessitates a freakin' scavenger hunt to be read.
Given that the point of information technology is managing information, this strikes me as perverse.
As the rate of format change accelerates, it's becoming remarkably easy to lose information in the gaps between generations of technology. Each memory upgrade requires a little more forgetting. If 2003 is ancient, what of stuff from the 1990's? 1980's?
Think of all the information effectively lost due to format changes: Betamax tapes, 8-tracks, LP's, reel-to-reel tapes (remember ampex?), 78's, kinescopes, Super 8 mm film. Soon, photographic film will be consigned to the dustbin of history, along with cassette tapes and floppy disks. (As someone who went to college in the 1980's, the idea that cassette tapes are fading from view is hard to process. Sure, they're fragile and cumbersome, they sound like shit and they're never rewound where you want them, but they marked an era! Anyone else remember that annoying 'bloop-bloop-bloop' at the beginning of prerecorded tapes? Remember 'metal' tapes?) Readers of a certain age: remember the floppy disks that were actually floppy? Big, black, 5 ¼ inch suckers that made a satisfying 'whup whup' sound when you waved them in the air? They held about twenty pages of prose, when they held anything at all. (I had a professor in college who couldn't understand why his disks never worked, until he mentioned that he kept them stuck to his refrigerator with a magnet.) Hell, I remember dual-floppy IBM pc's in the college computer center wherein I'd insert the 'program disk' in one drive and the 'document disk' in the other. Of course, I also remember President Reagan. Kids today...
But I digress.
Last year, in an attempt to satisfy my jones for weird-ass music, I signed up for one of those online music subscription services. (It rhymes with 'wahoo.') For a monthly or yearly fee, I could download as much music as my mp3 player could hold. The music came with DRM encoding, which is basically a digital self-destruct mechanism that would kick in if I hadn't kept my subscription up to date. I was psyched about it at the time, since it allowed me to try out the latest offerings from whomever struck my fancy. I couldn't burn CD's, but since I mostly listen in the car, that didn't really bother me.
A few months into my annual subscription, the *$%^(%# folks at 'wahoo' decided to double the price. So I'm cancelling, which means losing access to everything I've been listening to for the last year. It's not catastrophic, certainly, but it's slightly unnerving. I knew it was essentially a rental service, but since I didn't anticipate the price summarily doubling, I didn't envision dropping it. Psychologically, I hadn't quite made the switch. Meanwhile, CD's I bought in the early 1990's are still perfectly listenable.
Blogging is a disposable medium too, though I take some comfort in the 'archives' section. At least with blogging, I can always print it out and keep it, if the mood strikes. (It hasn't, but it's nice to know it's possible.) Still, I think of many other blogs as part of my repertoire, and when one of them is taken offline, I'm helpless. There's no blog repository, as far as I know. (Techno-savvy readers are invited to correct me on this one.) If Bitch were to take down her blog, I'd lose a major cultural touchstone. With magazines or newspapers, we at least have libraries. With blogs and websites, not so much.
Future historians will have their hands full. Reading letters from 19th century figures isn't that hard, once you track them down. But how will future historians recover emails from long-lost IT systems? Two or three 'migrations' down the road, how will anything be recoverable? How will they listen to podcasts or audiobooks when the technology used to 'read' them is, itself, long gone? If someone decides, in 2015, to do a history of blogging, will much of the early (current) material even be accessible?
The Wife will get her resume and cover letter back, one way or another. Luckily, it's only going back three years. Much more than that, and we'd have been better off if they had just been typed.
One of the most amazing examples of this is magazines. Not (just) the ones we have now, but the hundreds (thousands, likely) of periodicals published in 19th Century America.
All those famouse authors the humanities people write about? Poe? Irving? Hawthorne? Mencken? Wells? They wrote for magazines, and they read those same magazines diligently, and they corresponded in their pages. Books were a sortof side-effect.
But modern academic scholarship attends only to books, not magazines. The physical issues of the magazines themselves, unless bound and sent to one of a half-dozen libraries, are gone down the outhouse hole these days. Chopped up for the pretty engravings.
We (meaning my wife and I) buy old issues on eBay to try to save them for Distributed Proofreaders, but for the hundreds of issues we've got, there are many thousands lost forever. That represent maybe half the reading and writing that made up the intellectual community of 1860-1910. Just the other day a volume of Potter's arrived; I've never even head of Potter's, and as far as I can tell it was pretty cool, and ran for a few years. So lots of people read it. And contributed to it. Maybe 6000 pages, right there, of stuff that is gone from our picture of what people thought and wrote and said....
So the take-home lesson isn't merely that historians will have a problem. To me, it seems more tragic that future historians will simply forget the channel existed at all. There will be no mention of the IRC channels of the 90s, or cassette correspondence clubs of the 70s, or Ham radio. Because the physical evidence will be too hard to find in the future, it follows that they must've been scarce and unimportant in the past as well,,,,
Maybe I'm not "into it" enough to "get it" but that's my take.
changes in physical formats are important, but so are changes in software formats. i have a number of macwrite archives that i can't open on any modern computer. i've kept my old mac plus on the theory that someday that's what i'll use it for.
My dad, a poet and librarian, kept a daily handwritten journal for decades.
He wrote daily entries in longhand, starting in the early 1970s and continuing until chronic illness and disability made it impossible to write around 2000.
He used hardbound journals meant for accountants--with good quality bindings and acid-free paper, but otherwise very simple--just 200 plain-ruled pages with page numbers stamped on the upper corner of each page. (He saved the last few pages of each volume for an index which he created before moving on to the next volume. The margins of each page of his journal had annotations for the subject entries of his index.)
His handwriting was difficult for others to decipher, but when he wanted to be somewhat crytpic, he would write in Greek or Cyrillic alphabets (the words were still in English--just transliterated.) Sometimes he would also write in a special code he had devised. He gave us children the key to the code, though I doubt codebreakers would find it difficult to crack in any event.
He was absent-minded and knew that it was possible to mislay his journal, which he tried to carry everywhere with him in his green bag, in case inspiration might suddenly strike.
About five years ago, he convinced my mother to drive him and his journals over a hundred miles to Alderman Library, the main library of the University of Virginia, where he wanted to donate his journals. There were hundreds of the green bound books. And he had also laboriously transcribed their contents onto floppy disks.
My mother was skeptical of whether the university would be interested. He wasn't famous. He wasn't an alumnus. He wasn't a former faculty or staff member of Univresity of Virginia.
My father, trembling with advanced Parkinson's, insisted that the library WOULD be interested.
My mother, figuring she would humor him, drove him down to Charlottesville.
He went into the library and requested to borrow a dolly, then my mother helped him load his boxes of hundreds of journals and floppy disks onto the dolly, and he laboriously but happily trundled them off into the library.
He sent my skeptical mother off to get a cup of coffee while he waited to speak with an acquisitions librarian about his donation.
When my mother returned, he was happy--apparently he and the acquisitions librarian had had a nice and reassuring conversation. My dad felt his journals would be in good hands.
My mother was still skeptical that the library would actually keep my father's arcane daily scribblings--both in manuscript and transcribed 5-inch diskettes. But she refrained from sharing those thoughts with my dad, since he was so happy about his encounter with the librarian.
To everyone's surprise (except my dad), the library did indeed archive his treasured journals. A few years later, my brother discovered complete and detailed entries in the library's catalog listing them, along with the annotation that access to them was restricted during the author's lifetime to those who had his permission. That had been my father's stipulation.
He was very happy to see the catalog listing for his journal.
My father died this year.
I'm glad those journals still exist in their familiar green bound journals somewhere deep in the archives of Alderman Library in Charlottesville.
Ah, youngsters. Remember the 8" floppy disks from IBM's memory typewriters? You don't? I still have the five that my dissertation was typed on.
But it is an increasing difficulty. I had (have?) a file of multiple choice questions that I wrote and stored in an exam-generating system provided by a publisher. I can no longer get to those questions--over 2000 of them--at all. It's painful.
I too have an old mac in a closet with the hopes of recovering a bunch of papers, stories, poetry, and letters from my college days!
More (state) governments need to pass open-format laws, requiring their agencies to keep their records in a format that can be read by anyone who can make it through a technical manual, rather than proprietary software that may change or disappear.
Obviously this isn't an instant cure for your problem. But at least it would force the major software houses (yes, specifically Microsoft) to open their formats, and then this would trickle down to you.
The days of worrying about paper tape vs. USB key vs. magazine stock will be over pretty soon, with hard drives cheap enough to store anything and bandwidth cheap enough to back up anything multiple places. But there are too many closed formats out there for people to be motivated to reverse-engineer them all, and that's where our focus should be.
I've also read that Gulf War I was extensively documented, but Gulf War II documentation has massive gaps in it (at least right now) due to the widespread use of emails. What was once held in (somewhat) easily found documents is now lost in the computers, and is a pain to find. I have faith that someday most of it will be dug out, but it's a massive pain in the historian and policy maker's collective rump.
Then there's all that telemetry data from the moon missions that NASA can't read anymore, because computers have changed so much...
i went to college in the '70's. there was a partial-credit computer class available, and the computers were the size of industrial refrigerators. i believe they used reel-to-reel magnetic tape to store data. my cool young english professor's newly minted dissertation was on punch-cards.
i remember a word-processing machine at one job [circa 1980] that was the size of several modern heavy-duty copiers. at another job [1983 or so], the boss opted for computerized typewriters instead of those new-fangled personal computers -- the typewriter could hold 50 pages of text, period. who needed more, when there were photocopy machines, and secretaries to retype what needed retyping? the next 2 jobs featured those giant floppies that were really floppy; but at the first of those, only the secretaries were allowed to use the computers.
a few weeks ago, a colleague laughed at me for still using CD's to transfer data from one place to another -- she uses a flash drive exclusively. sigh.
in theory, i really believe in keeping hard copies, except i always think i'll print them out later, and then they get lost. and i'm starting to regard my decades-old stash of paper as something that needs to be culled and recycled asap, because there is just too much. [only 5 years ago, when i left a long-time job, i tossed 8 large recycle bins of excess. that wasn't enough tossing.]
My octegenarian father-in-law recently acquired a Nero program allowing him to make his cassettes into digital files and has been faithfully ripping his tapes daily since. When his hard drive crashed, he called me to fix it (having already archived all the data to CD, he lost nothing) and then decided just to buy a new computer.
He's not the norm, but all these personalized mix tapes were so meaningful to him, he wanted to preserve them. I know that someday my wife will listen to them, and hopefully I will be able to migrate them to whatever storage system we have for my children (I won't guess, since heaven knows what format it will be...)
I wonder if historians will have the opposite problem with our era: too much information. An excess of data is sometimes as much of a problem as the dearth of it.
I make it a point to:
1. Check every few years and copy stuff "once again" to essentially refresh the bits--even on CDs and DVDs since they can get "disk rot" as well.
2. When a new technology arrives, move everything from the old to the new, even if you still will keep the old around "for a while." You WILL forget, and then be back in this pickle.
I have many documents that I originally created on the lowly Commodore 64 as ascii files, but have moved from tape, to floppy, to 3 1/2, to CD, to DVD...
Also, consider converting anything and everything to what are (for now) still accepted interface standards. RTF and ascii are good alternatives (with RTF keeping much of the formatting). SGML/HTML is also a good way to store information, since they are a) ascii and b) formatted in a way that one can at least readily decode.
Yes, this is a burden. Yes, it is cumbersome. But imagine if we all had to still use the once ubiquitous 110K (or 300K) 5 1/4 floppy, simply because we all wanted to keep the standard.
But my 8-year-old brother doesn't even know what a 3.5 disk is...and it hurts my brain!