Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Upgrades and Loss

The Wife is getting a little restless with the stay-at-home thing, so she's starting to put out feelers for part-time jobs. I think it's a great idea, since I'm ready to go postal after just a few days at home. A few years, and things would get ugly.

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.