Tuesday, December 04, 2012

The Slow Death of Books, Films & Music (& Potential Catastrophic Impact on Generational Information Exchange)

Over the weekend, TechCrunch's Ryan Lawler wrote an important piece titled "The Death of Paper."   In it, Lawler discusses society's accelerating focus and dependence on digitized information and how it is fast replacing society's reliance upon "physical, semi-permanent medi[a]" -- which has been at the core of humankind's information exchange since the beginnings of time.  Lawler focuses most on the replacement of paper (e.g., books, etc.) via digitization.   But, he also identifies the same for film and music.

At the end of his piece, he asks the critical question:  "In 20 years, if there are no physical books, what will future cultures know about us in 220 years, when digital memories are likely wiped away?"

Lawler identifies the right question here, but he does not elaborate on this potentially cataclysmic ramifications of this issue -- which are real, very real.

How can that be, you ask?  Digitized information is even more secure and lasting than physical media, you say.

But, that is not the case at all -- and society holds a fundamental misconception of this fundamental problem that has potentially massive adverse consequences to information exchange from our generations to future generations.  I know this sounds like "the boy who cried wolf," but it really isn't.

I recently identified the same "digital dilemma" in a guest post for The Huffington Post, titled "Indie Filmmakers and the Digital Dilemma."  In my piece, I focus on the potential for whole generations of motion pictures -- some of our greatest art -- to be wiped out simply by the inexorable march of time.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences defined the problem and unappreciated reality in the following way:

"Compared to traditional filmmaking using motion picture film stock, digital technologies make it easier to create motion pictures, but the resulting digital data is much harder to preserve."

Here's why.  As I identified in my piece, which applies equally to all forms of digital data), digital data is subject to invisible failure mechanisms at many levels, including: 

(1) the actual recording media, 

(2) the data reading and writing system in the digital storage device, 

(3) the data interface that connects the storage device to a computer, 

(4) the computer network that connects individual machines, and 

(5) the many levels of software that control the overall system. 

For all these reasons, long-term preservation of digital data requires both costly professionally managed digital storage systems and processes, and perpetual operational support (which includes continuous migration to newer storage technologies).  

But, how much of that is really being done?

In the case of independent film, the Utah Film & Media Arts Coalition -- which is based in Salt Lake City (the home of independent film's Sundance Film Festival) -- hopes to build a massive digital film archive to preserve that fundamental art-form for future generations.  However, it needs significant private financial support to make this a reality -- and we are not there yet (I am a member of this Coalition which is now in the RFP process).

How about all other media?  Society's books?  Movies?  Music?  Your books?  Your movies?  Your music?

Right now, much of this digitized data is in the grips of a slow death march.  I can hear the funeral dirge as we speak.  

But, that music is slowly ... ever so slowly ... almost unnoticeably -- fading away ....