How to prevent the end of history


Hidden among the latest catastrophes and tragedies was a little-heralded story about how the last VCR was finally being produced.

I didn’t even know that VCRs were still being made,” said mostly everyone.

Indeed, it’s been a while since I’ve really thought about VCRs. I grew up with them, but I’ve never been much of a movie buff, so I don’t have a large collection of VHS tapes.

Nevertheless, I found this turn of events more than a little chilling. And what’s scarier is that few people seem to realize the larger implications for technology in general, and how it relates to our history and culture.

The lonesome death of a word processor

It’s not VCRs that are the problem per se, but technology “death”, or officially “digital obsolescence“.

Do you have important files in Microsoft Word format? Do you have important files in PDF format? Do you assume that they will be around forever?

Ask the authors of Eaglewriter.

Eaglewriter was a word processor for DOS. My dad used to use it back when I was a kid. I remember falling asleep listening to him downstairs typing away.

I can’t really confirm if the name of the program was exactly Eaglewriter. This is because I can find no such official reference to Eaglewriter or anything similar anywhere. If it existed, it’s been lost. It’s certainly not in the list of word processors on Wikipedia.

Whatever its name, if anything that was written with that program was important or meaningful to my Dad, me, or anyone in the future, it is likely gone. Eaglewriter most likely used a proprietary binary format that is unreadable today.

The lonesome death of the disk

But let’s say that we found a suitable reader for these files. 100% of them are stored on 5.25″ 360K floppy disks.

5.25" floppy disk
This small image of a 5.25″ floppy disk could just barely fit on the disk itself.

Do you have a 5.25″ floppy drive lying around? I didn’t think so.

But that’s old stuff. That wouldn’t happen today.

It was only a few years ago that we were backing up our content to CDs and DVDs. I don’t know about you, but if you’ve bought a new computer recently, did it even come with an optical drive?

I save everything on a USB hard drive.

So we can assume that USB will always be around as an interface? Technology nerds: remember SCSI? Remember MFM?

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Good try.

The lonesome death of magnetic storage

And above all, the worst assumption is that even if you have the ability to access the content, that the content will even be there. The data on these drives (assuming a traditional hard drive) is magnetic. If those magnetic dipoles get out of whack (say, by other magnetic forces), your precious data is gone.

Maybe this won’t happen in one year or even ten years. But what about 100 years?

The lonesome death of film

Maybe you don’t care about your old school reports or photos. Maybe you’re convinced you have nothing you want to preserve.

Maybe you care about art though.

We assume that when someone makes a movie, it will exist forever. But that’s not true. The first Marx Brothers movie is gone. The second movie Alfred Hitchcock directed is gone. A movie about the sinking of the Titanic starring an actual Titanic survivor is gone.

This is art we will never get back.

And because of film stock degradation (which can sometime cause spontaneous fires) you get film that technically exists but is effectively unwatchable.

Nitrate film decay
This is what happens to film. Old film stock is chemically related to an explosive. Not joking.

Sometimes, that leads to new art being created:

But mostly, it leads to nothing.

Designed for 1,000 years but lasting only 15

The Domesday Book is a survey of England and Wales completed in the 11th century. Its purpose is disputed, but it has to do with land rights and who owned what (presumably for tax purposes).

Domesday Book
Not looking half bad for 900 years old.

In 1986, England released an “updated” version. Called the BBC Domesday Project, it was designed as a survey of life in modern England, including pictures, videos, newspaper article, and other multimedia sources.

In order to keep pace with the massive scope of the project, the creators utilized state of the art technology available at the time. The project was stored and released on a variant of the LaserVision videodisc called LV-ROM.

Need I even continue?

The original Domesday Book is still available almost a thousand years after its creation. The BBC Domesday Project is already unreadable, at least in its original form.

But thanks to another type of salvage operation, you can see how it was supposed to be:

Now okay, in this case, you can still access the content from this project, but this feels like a special case.

In general, we have entered a period in our history where we have all of our collective knowledge stored in an extremely volatile and non-persistent format.

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Think Wikipedia will save us?

Why am I ranting about this?

You’ve all heard the phrase about those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.

But we all are a part of history. We all contribute to the collective understand of our families, our culture, and our humanity.

Because of this, I believe that we all have a responsibility to not forget. And these days, the best way to avoid forgetfulness is to prevent digital forgetfulness.

So I charge you to:

  • Migrate your old digital content into more current formats. If you have documents written in old software, copy them to newer software.
  • Backup your digital content onto at least two sources. Make sure at least one of these locations is controlled by you. Don’t rely solely on “the cloud”.
  • If possible, transfer your digital content to a source that doesn’t require technology to read. Print our your photos and put them in a binder.

I am not a technophobe, but neither am I a techno-utopian. Technology can solve lots of our problems, but it can’t solve the problems of technology.

VHS is dead. Long live VHS.

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