In May of 2001, I posted a brief not on the transience of electronic digital data:
Ephemera: Transience wins, presistence loses when information is digital electronic

David Pogue of the NY Times has updated the part that storage format transience plays:

From the Desk of David Pogue
Subject: Circuits: The Dilemma over Future Storage Formats
Date: Thu, 07 Dec 2006 14:24:04 -0500
From: The New York Times Direct <>
Reply-To: The New York Times Direct <>

The Dilemma Over Future Storage Formats

Last week, I noted that a typical storage format--floppy disk, cassette tape, even DVD--has a society life of about ten years. After that, it becomes an increasing burden to rescue everything, to keep vigilant, to keep spending money and time shunting it forward onto the next-generation formats.

As usual, your comments were astoundingly thoughtful and astute. Read on (if you can still read this aging electronic format):

* "Several companies offer 'archival gold' DVD-Rs, which supposedly last for 100 years. Of course, they're pricy; about $1.00 - $3.00 per disk, depending on quantity purchased."

Lots of you wrote about these, asking for my assurance that they will really last for 100 years. I have no idea (and I doubt the companies know for sure, either).

If you know anything about the science of the claims about gold blank discs, let me know.

Regarding old movies on film, several of you mentioned a home-brewed technique that I forgot to mention:

"Last year I transferred a couple of hours of 45-year-old 8-mm family movies to digital. I hit upon a surprisingly easy way to do the job: I just projected the movies, being careful to set everything up for very good focus, brightness, and so on. Then I put my Sony camcorder on a tripod and simply recorded the screen. Later I fed the information in the camera to iMovie, edited in some music and titles, and we were off to the races."

I'm happy it worked out. Of course, this method has the same problem as the "send it to the drugstore" method: it does nothing to fix the picture. If it's red and faded, it will be red and faded on your camcorder, too.

I received a number of pitches from companies who offer online storage of your photos, movies, and so on, like this one:

"Remote server storage is the ultimate solution to the problem you mention. The ability to edit, co-mingle (mash) videos, and share them online is just a bonus."

You're kidding me, right? We're worried that home-burned *DVD's* won't last the decade, and now they're suggesting that we entrust our memories to a Web *startup*?

Show me an online storage company older than about six years, and I'll show you someone with a time machine.

At least three of you saw in this crisis a business opportunity for someone who's thinking ahead:

* "An engineer friend of mine once remarked that if he really cared enough to do so, he would buy up perhaps 30 of every popular storage technology today: CD burners/players, DVD burners/players, new VHS machines (which are becoming scarcer already), and so on. He would warehouse them for 30 years.

"At the end of that time, there would be a very large market for many, many millions of people who had old media in their houses, attics and garages with no clue as to how to rescue them. He postulated this as a can't-miss get-rich idea for his children and grandchildren."

I don't know about you, but I think there's a James Bond movie plot in here somewhere...

Here are a few more choice excerpts:

* "Home movies are fading, and it *is* depressing. Consider this, though: every single day government archivists are faced with the same issue on a far different scale. We're not talking home movies here; we're talking deeds, mortgages, birth records, death records, maps, engineering drawings, court records--the list is nearly endless. Almost any type of government record you can think of is already being created in electronic form. They're just as difficult to preserve as those fading home movies (more so in most cases)--but lose them, and we lose our basic rights as citizens.

"How long does an official deed have to last? Or a map showing the locations of hazardous waste? Or the transcript of a murder trial? And, as you rightly point out, 'How long does a typical format last before society abandons it? Usually less than ten years.'

"Government archivists have made great strides toward preservation strategies, often in tandem with private corporations, but few government officials--and even fewer citizens--yet grasp the seriousness of the issue or the resources that are needed to resolve it."

* "You're all missing an important detail: once the transfer is complete, the CDs and DVDs can be copied ad infinitum to new media. Since the copy is a bit transfer, it is exactly the same as the source. In 10 years' time, we may have migrated to new media types, but that's something we can handle in the purely digital domain with software."

* "This is not an abstract engineering problem. It has economic consequences that are not accounted for in the electronics industry's storage displacement projections.

Imagine what Mrs. Pogue will say when you explain to her how vital it is for you to keep every computing gadget you'll ever own in a hall closet -- because you can't be assured that device drivers or replacement parts for your (fill in the blank) will be readily available the next time you need one. Assuming you agree that this strategy is impractical (and injurious to domestic tranquility), as the volume of global data under management burgeons, what's the economic cost to continually haul archival files forward to more-recent (read: available) platforms?"

* "Even analog data that lasts for hundreds of years-- like sculptures, paintings, and books--eventually faces obsolescence as evolving civilizations no longer understand how to 'decode' it. I read an article about storing nuclear waste, where scientists and technologists were trying to invent a method to warn future humans 5,000 years from now against opening the dangerous storage. How do you communicate with people who might not use languages or alphabets as we know them, and may not have any frame of reference for understanding images or symbols we might come up with?"

Finally, a shout out from the nihilists:

* "Mr. Pogue's dilemma begs the question: why bother? Who wants this stuff?

"All of us over 40 have received a shoebox of old photos or home movies from even older relatives." The problem isn't the restoration, or the photos; it is what's on them. Most of the time, no one can name the people or place pictured.

"The reality is that no one wants to look at old movies of Aunt Sally waving or the Grand Canyon flickering. Sorry, folks, but the future will get along without us--or our DVD's."

This week's Pogue's Posts blog.

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