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Data Bleed - The Life and Thoughts of Zach

Oct. 30th, 2003

12:23 am - Data Bleed

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Maybe I should go to librarian's school or something. This is a response that I posted to arohanui's post about the loss of historical film to decay.

When I think of how much of the last century's information we're losing to entropy it really makes me sad.

It's humbling to realize that the only thing that _really_ lasts is paper. With every thing else it decays rapidly or else the technology changes so fast that we just can't remember how to read it or play it back anymore.

CDs and CD-ROMs have a life span of 30-100 years and then they'll all be worthless.

The glue on all the 8 Track tapes has mostly already failed.

VHS videos lose their magnetic charge over time most people's home movies from the early 80s are getting unwatchable now.

Old magnetic computer tapes and reel to reel audio tapes are not only losing their information but there simlpy aren't any machines left for them so we can't even copy them.

Now to learn that we're losing our film herritage.

It's the tragedy of modern information technology. We're so immersed in so much information that we just assume stuff is really durable because it is NEW. We take it for granted. And then one day it'll be gone and future generations will never know how we got from there to here.

Will we be able to do better with the petabyes of digital information now available to us? Are there effective archival methods that will preserve it other than printing it to punchcards and storing it in a vault? The only real way is to keep copying it (with good checksums) faster than entropy drops bits. But will we copy it all forever? Once we take a break, all is lost. A book can be put down and forgotten about and rediscovered 500 years later. Not so with digital data.

Current Mood: tiredtired

Comments:

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From:folkyboy
Date:October 29th, 2003 10:34 pm (UTC)
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i couldn't agree more. it's REALLY sad. and it makes me sadder when people don't try to do anything to preserve that stuff. :( they let their lives slip by in a reel of black and white
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From:marezcharz
Date:October 30th, 2003 03:43 am (UTC)
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I feel much the same way but also...

This stuff disappears so more stuff can take it's place. Eh, well, eh.

I've designed a few art pieces to decay within a few years. Sometimes it sucks that they're gone or going. But the reason I did it was to make them more precious while they existed. Considering the giant pack rat that I am, that was a difficult thing to do, but it helped me grow somehow. (damn, how did I make this all about me? Geesh, I'm sorry)
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From:zarfmouse
Date:October 30th, 2003 08:22 am (UTC)
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I'm not worried about some things decaying. My worry is about EVERYTHING decaying. If something isn't done we will lose ALL the VHS, ALL the CDs, ALL the CD-ROMs, and ALL the films from the first half of the century.

Think of how much of what we're able to do today as both artists and engineers is based on what people did 100 years ago. In 100 years when this stuff is gone, think of how hard it'll be for people to become experts at obscure old skills, think of how hard it'll be for historians and anthropologists to understand what happened. It's just sad.

Most of us don't access archives of ancient information. But I have a friend (altheis) for instance whose entire academic pursuit is reading and translating ancient latin texts. She's looking at books that no one has looked at in hundreds of years. Some of those books have good stuff in them and some mundane. But it is just good to know that the only surviving record of a culture doesn't have to be JUST the really popular stuff. I mean imagine if the Spice Girls was the only music of the 20th century that survived.


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From:stuffedsheep29
Date:October 30th, 2003 09:08 am (UTC)
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If something isn't done we will lose ALL the VHS, ALL the CDs, ALL the CD-ROMs, and ALL the films from the first half of the century.

And don't forget all of the music with no score! A lot of incredible electroacoustic pieces have either no score, or a score that makes performance quite difficult. And hey, most of these pieces have been recorded on oh-so-rotting-away tape.

Perhaps, one day, we'll be reduced to oral histories and traditions. Even though our records may decay, people are an enduring epidemic.
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From:assclouds
Date:October 30th, 2003 11:31 am (UTC)
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You win! New Music is Old Again!
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From:marezcharz
Date:October 31st, 2003 03:18 am (UTC)
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I gotcha.

Ouroboros...
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From:assclouds
Date:October 30th, 2003 08:25 am (UTC)
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The first two things I thought of when I read this:

1) There's a guy in San Francisco who is saving film and video in his own library / museum. He's in the process of digitizing it all - stock of people's family vacations, stuff thrown out in the trash or rescued from old studios looking to reclaim storage space. There was an article I read about it but can't find it now. If I do, I'll pass it along.

2) Someone made a film using decaying film stock. The reviews I've read are incredible - Ebert suggested it was one of the best films ever made. Now that it's available on DVD I might just have to pick it up.
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From:swank76
Date:October 30th, 2003 11:59 am (UTC)
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I once heard a story on NPR about the LOC having a badly underfunded project to store audio recordings on old-fasioned wax discs. The idea was that the wax disc isn't subject to technology decay (environmental decay aside) and a caveman with a sharp stick can spin the disc and play it.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:October 30th, 2003 01:23 pm (UTC)
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Yah, there's all kinds of smart preservation projects but they're all underfunded and understaffed.

I actually do like the idea of encoding important digital data on punched paper tapes (cards can be misorered). Any caveman can look at holes on a piece of paper and map them to symbols according to written instructions.

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From:xymboulos
Date:October 30th, 2003 08:15 pm (UTC)
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The nice thing about technology is that it seems to keep pace with our development, and data storage is a prime example. Our ability to store data is growing rapidly along with our ability to produce it. When you consider the advances in storage technology over the past 20 years, I can envision the data of the past being constantly rolled up into contemporary storage as a very small component of the future's total data set. The total data produced in the twentieth century will probably be orders of magnitude less than the data produced in the twenty-first (and fit on the future equivalent of a DVD).

Regarding books, ancient books were designed to last due to the relative value of printed media of the time. The cost to produce a book made it a luxury item, and therefore impractical to produce as a disposable item. Modern media is easily produced and transferred. While a CD may degrade in less than a century, it only takes minutes to copy it to another storage device. Technologies like peer-to-peer architectures may produce the opposite problem: perpetual data persistence.

It is worth noting that our conception of past media is based on that which has survived. We can only surmise what did not survive from the context produced by that which did. It is very likely that the contributions of entire cultures have been lost due to lack of literacy and the destruction of limited and fragile storage mediums. For every Gutenberg Bible, hundreds of less durable works have been lost to the void of the past.

While current historians lament the loss of so much of the past, future historians will probably face the opposite problem. The amount of preserved data will overwhelm analysis and require tremendous computational and human effort to digest to a level where historiography can even begin. In fact, I am probably exacerbating the problem right now with this very post.

Additionally, the advent of inexpensive media will dramatically skew the historical data set by expanding the scope of preserved material to include more trivial and common samples. In a positive sense, this will certainly elevate social and cultural historical analysis. Historians of the future will have a much more balanced view of the many classes of society, with less emphasis on the elites.

However, there are potential negatives. Commercial and technological control of current media could generate a biased picture of our time in the future. This is especially a concern as the volume of data may lead future historians to assume a level of accuracy and completion that will discourage intensive research and conjecture. The inclusion of our more trivial media could result in improper comparisons between our time and previous eras. Our perception of ancient cultures is primarily based on their great accomplishments and is not tempered by their equivalents of junk mail and Jerry Springer.
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From:zarfmouse
Date:October 30th, 2003 09:32 pm (UTC)
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That is an interesting perspective that I hadn't thought about. I wonder if future historians will have the new benefit of being able to start from "literature reviews" and other contemporary indices/overviews before diving into the data itself. Rather than searching for a rosetta stone, they'll be searching for a good index/review before digging into a given corpus. So the scholars of our day have that responsibility to the historians of the future. Sort and organize the knowledge now so it can be understood later. This is something that we don't have as much of (some but not as much) for ancient works.


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