The Digital Dilemma

For Christmas this year, my wife gave me a Moleskine journal with Pac-Man on the cover.  On Sunday, I began my latest attempt at keeping a journal.  My previous attempts were thwarted by either my inability to remember to write in it, or by my dissatisfaction with my writing style.  More than once, I have started a journal only to dispose of it several weeks later after reading how terrible my first few entries were.  Hopefully, this time will be different.

As I began writing in my new journal, a thought crossed my mind.  Which of my written records will survive the longest, my journal or my blog?

I recently tried to explain to my new media students the concept of the Digital Dilemma.  Of course, almost any possible ill related to digital technology has been called a “Digital Dilemma” by someone, but I refer to the same thing the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences refers to with the term, that is, the problem of the preservation of digital information.  Most of the time, we think of information on the Internet as being somewhat permanent.  The information lives in “the Cloud.”  Certainly, the Internet has a way of preserving things, from leaked government documents to that unfortunate picture someone took of you at the company party.  This is not exactly what I’m talking about.  The issue here is long-term preservation.  The world wide web, which has only been around for twenty years, has yet to cross that bridge.  Analog media, on the other hand, have been dealing with preservation for millennia.

Harold Innis categorized media as either time-biased or space-biased.  Stone carvings, one of the more popular ways of writing back in the day, have lasted since the times of Ancient Egypt.  They were, however, a poor choice for distributing information over any kind of distance.  Stone is considered a time-biased medium.  Papyrus, on the other hand, was easy to distribute, but was relatively fragile.

Books occupy a nice position on the continuum of space- and time-biased media.  They require a bit more care than stone, but in a well-kept library, a book could easily last centuries of relative neglect.  They are also relatively easy to transport and distribute.  Assuming that my journal is filled with good-quality paper and I don’t leave it exposed to the elements, it could easily last hundreds of years.

Digital information is a different matter entirely.  Even if something is out in “the Cloud,” being copied and mirrored and redistributed, somewhere it has a physical presence.  Somewhere, there is a hard drive that needs electricity to keep the information available.  One day, probably in the next five years, that hard drive will die, taking the information with it.  Backups will have to be made, which requires more hard drives and more electricity.  It also requires someone with the technical knowledge to do the backing up other maintenance.  Backing up a hard drive may seem trivial now, but what about maintaining the information over a hundred years?  What about two hundred?

Another issue with digital information is file formats.  While I have no problem accessing my writings from the last ten years, some of my older files are in proprietary formats that are no longer supported by anyone.  Some people have tried to create standard formats for certain types of media, but most are not widely adopted yet.  As such, we must constantly update our files, often with each new release of the program.

Though digital media are cheap, fast and easy to work with, they are space-biased, not time-biased.  Last year, at the 2010 Pushbutton Summit, I had the opportunity to hear Milt Shefter speak on this issue as it relates to film preservation (you can watch his keynote here).  Though digital film is the new thing in Hollywood these days, we are already beginning to lose the original copies of the first digital movies.  If we can’t preserve multimillion dollar films, what chance does my blog have?

I don’t know if either of my two written records will stand the test of time.  Perhaps someone will solve the problems of permanent digital storage before the hard drive containing my last backup dies.  Maybe our digital culture will be preserved in some new format, or maybe historians in two hundred years will look back at our time and wonder why we suddenly stopped writing things down.

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