The coming Digital Dark Age…or maybe Not-So-Dark Age

Just a few days ago, I was talking with someone about tape versus P2 (&other tapeless formats). We were talking about longevity of formats and how we do backups of the tapeless media. We use LTO tape – yes, we take all that wonderful tapeless, random-accessible media created on some of the most cutting edge video production gear and we back it up with tape.

“You put it back on tape? Why not just shoot tape in the first place?, ” they asked. Good damn point. I replied. Well, we know that it isn’t likely we’ll see a return to tape formats. At least not completely. Tapeless gives you a huge advantage in ease-of-entry into an editable form. 40 minutes of P2 footage, takes 6 minutes to import into FCP. You can’t beat that kind of turn-around for getting source footage into an NLE to turn it into a finished project. We won’t see a return to the days of tape only acquisition or even a return to film-based acquisition. We’ve turned the corner.

“But then we’re going to hit a speed bump, ” I said.

“In the not too distant future, we’re going to have a gap in our archives, ” I theorized. We then talked of how, with all this digital stuff and formats changing every few years, we are going to end up with a hole in the records of our times. Sure printed material and photographs will survive, but most of our digital creations – our videos and other media in digital form will become unusable & unplayable. Most videos are ephemeral by their very nature – but how much more could we learn about ancient cultures if we had more than a few cave paintings and mummified bodies to study. Much of popular culture and current event digital media will be lost. That’s just the facts. Such a bummer to think that nothing lasts forever, but its the one constant.

“But, I back things up, ” they said. Sure, you use all kinds of methods to back things up, but none of them are time-tested. Not in this digital era. Formats become obsolete. Just think, how many people do you know who have working BetaMax machines or 1″ machines. I have D2 & D1 tapes that, although I can find a deck somewhere, are less than 10 years old and those formats are practically gone from common usage. What happens in another 10 years? The content on those tapes will be forever locked there until I have a compelling reason to get them off. There are tons of inventions for recording  to a medium that have died off. The real crime is to see something go before you can get the important stuff off.

I brushed up against this very problem  early in my career. I was working in duplication at a post house. We had a working 2″ video tape machine. Now at the time 2″ tape had been out of favor in the industry for 10 to 15 years. There were a few working machines left in the US. The place I worked was one of them. We were also a designated transfer facility for the National Archives. We transferred 16mm and 35mm film for them all the time. Occasionally we would get some 2″ video that needed to be transferred. Now the Archives has never had a huge budget. It has to rely on the people who request footage to foot the bill of the transfer from old format to new.  It became clear to me that there is a real issue when I came in one day and was given the 2″ tape of President Nixon’s live address to the nation announcing his resignation. Here was a piece of history and the only record of it the US Government had was on a 2″ video tape. When I threaded it up on the machine, bits of the magnetic layer were flaking off. I thought, “this doesn’t look good.” It wasn’t. I had a really hard time getting the machine to play the tape back. We fussed and fiddled with it for a few hours and eventually got it to the point where we could play it back realatively stable. We dubbed it over to D1 and Digital BetaCam. I felt like I rescued a piece of history. But then it dawned on me, how much more 2″ video did the Archives have and what would happen as the years went by and fewer and fewer requests came in for the stuff?

A compelling reason for transferring my D1 & D2 material may be in the works, whether I want it or not – magnetic tape deteriorates. It loses it’s ability to hold the particles in the proper alignment. The base layer alters chemically and then the magnetic layer flakes off. All of that means the tape becomes unplayable after a time. Digital restoration techniques are in their infancy. Optical media isn’t much better off. We have no idea how long CDs, DVDs or BluRay discs are going to last. There are all kinds of problems with improper storage and shoddy media that will render those discs unreadable. The kind that you burn yourself will be worse off than the commercial discs you buy, further compounding the problem. I once read that even after 100 years a CD will be 10 times more playable than an audio tape recording, but even the oldest CD’s in the world are only 25 years old.

Some of this Digital Dark Age stuff has been thought about by minds far larger than me. Jerome P. McDonough is featured in an article for Physorg.com about the problem (it’s where I got the title for my post). A snippet from the article:

The concern for archivists and information scientists like McDonough is that, with ever-shifting platforms and file formats, much of the data we produce today could eventually fall into a black hole of inaccessibility.

“If we can’t keep today’s information alive for future generations,” McDonough said, “we will lose a lot of our culture.”

Contrary to popular belief, electronic data has proven to be much more ephemeral than books, journals or pieces of plastic art. After all, when was the last time you opened a WordPerfect file or tried to read an 8-inch floppy disk?

“Even over the course of 10 years, you can have a rapid enough evolution in the ways people store digital information and the programs they use to access it that file formats can fall out of date,” McDonough said.

But there is another take on this idea of a Digital Dark Age that means, maybe we won’t end up as just a perplexing gap in the record of human history 10,000 years from now. The very nature of digital media means that once the media enters the digital realm, it will begin to propagate and move from one dead format to a newly invented one. Or spread from system to system or user to user (thanks to BitTorrent et al). This is the essence of an odd maxim, known in the dark underworld of folk who study this stuff as, Reipl’s Law. To quote from the Wikipedia page on the subject:

Riepl stated in his dissertation about ancient modes of news communications that new, further developed types of media never replace the existing modes of media and their usage patterns. Instead, a convergence takes place in their field, leading to a different way and field of use for these older forms.

This hypothesis is still considered to be relevant, explaining the fact that new media never make the “old” media disappear.

In his Dead Media Manifesto, Bruce Sterling touched on the subject:

It’s a rather rare phenomenon for an established medium to die. If media make it past their Golden Vaporware stage, they usually expand wildly in their early days and then shrink back to some protective niche as they are challenged by later and more highly evolved competitors. Radio didn’t kill newspapers, TV didn’t kill radio or movies, video and cable didn’t kill broadcast network TV; they just all jostled around seeking a more perfect app.

I’m sure that as the price of storage comes down to pennies per terabyte and the means of digitizing existing formats into more digital-friendly ones we will see this come to pass. We won’t lose our history, if anything it will be preserved and spread around the Internet (or whatever takes its place). I know I haven’t really come to a profound conclusion here at the end of this post, but I do hope that I’ve got a few folks thinking about this stuff. That’s all we can do right now because we’re all cranking out gigabytes of new content every day. Seek the “perfect app” to access your media now and in the future. Use open formats instead of proprietary. And don’t forget to back up regularly.

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