A call from my sister-in-law last night and a simple request got me to thinking about the wet-digital interface and how it is gradually creating a divide in our memories. My in-laws will be celebrating 50 years of wedded bliss this June with a modest party and a minor family reunion.
It seems like only yesterday I was laying out their 40th invitation in CorelDraw 8, or was it 7? I still have the file and Version X4 (14 for those of us Roman Numerally-challenged) will still open it across the immense gulf of time of 10 years. On this invitation is a scan I did of their original wedding photograph taken in the late 50s.
It is a stroke of fortune that I am able to open the file. Had it been but a scant few versions older, I would have been stuck installing an intermediate version of the software for the purpose of translating the older data. This is of course providing I could find the disks, the serial number and had a computer capable of reading the ancient media.
“…vast amounts of our sweat and toil are accessible only at the whim of backwards compatibility and engineering deadlines…”
Those paper pictures, stored lovingly in a dark cool place, survived remarkably well. I was able to take decades old photographs and reproduce them for the upcoming slide show, invitation and other purposes.
Negatives and prints, if properly stored will last decades. How many file formats are so resilient? In the dawn of my computing experience PCX emerged as a stalwart of image files. I haven’t seen one in years.
My first Digital Camera came with proprietary software to read the file format that was nothing like I have ever seen. I still have the disk vintage 1997, the same year as the Draw file above, although none of my new computers purchased in the last three years have a floppy drive to read it.
Now the photograph is 50 years old, the file 10 years old and the floppy disk 10 years old. The photo was a slam dunk. I can use it. The file-just barely. The disk, well, I suppose I could find a floppy disk drive and install it and hope it can still read this 10 year old 2MB, that’s right 2 MB Type 1 Compact Flash Card.
Let’s fast forward ten more years. How many of my digital files will be readable then? The analog box of photographs is more cumbersome to work with but the principle upon which it is founded (the reflection of light) is stalwart and robust enough to last until we evolve past eyes. My first digital photographs have already evaporated.
Memories must be preserved generationally to further the advancement of our society. How much of the digital work we create will survive for our children’s children to reap. Vast amounts of our sweat and toil are accessible only at the whim of backwards compatibility and engineering deadlines. What if the recipe for Ice exists in WordPerfect 4.1 and the latest version of MS Word refuses to read it. Are we doomed to warm soft drinks forever.
We are in danger of creating a Memory Divide between the analog and digital worlds. The latter will be much easier to use and contain vast amounts of data at our finger tips but the former is just a little more likely (today at least) to survive into the future.
“How come there are pictures of Grandpa but none of Dad?” the toddler asks.
“Dad’s pictures were digital,” comes the wistful reply.
Rikk Flohr © 2008