Books

Electric Xs & Os vs. marks on paper

Where your digital life ends up

This article in the Books section of the NY Times got my attention this morning. I know, we’ve been over this before, more than once, but the hits just keep on a-coming, as do articles pondering this problem. The problem being: what endures? (Longest, one should add.) Who cares? is a subsidiary question.

In an earlier post way down the page, my old musician friend, John, (old friend, but not an old musician … well, let’s leave this be), commented that a vast amount of our lives exits entirely in a magnetic-based string of Xs and Os, or 1s and 2s, including much of his own large music collection, and notes ominously that one huge, rare but not impossible, burst of sunspot activity and all of it disappears to whatever place electrons come from before we use them. He has horror stories of what he has lost off “permanent” and very expensive reel-to-reel studio tapes.

Many years ago, John and some friends wrote a rock opera set in space. They never did anything professionally with it, but kept the studio Masters and copied a bunch of cassettes. A couple of years ago, John tried to recover it from the Masters and burn it onto a DVD, realizing the day would come when there would be no machine to play the tapes. What he found was the magnetic layer on his “permanent” Master tape and turned to mush in hardly more than a decade — he stored the tapes securely — and could not be salvaged. Then he found out he had kept none of the cassettes. So he started contacting anyone he might have sent cassettes to, hoping someone had kept it. I had kept mine. He was able to save, for a while longer anyway, original music compositions that otherwise would have disappeared as if they never existed.

I have few dozen VCR tapes.  Most are between ten and twenty years old. In a mood one night recently, I pulled out an old movie to watch and the sound track was gone and the everything on the screen was a pale green. I tried a few more and found various stages of disintegration. I have DVDs that are already beginning to … I don’t know the term for it … digitally self-destruct. Places on the disk freeze or start tossing pixels around like titty beads at Mardi Gras.

The first of my writing to be done on computers was saved to these big (5 inches?) floppy disks. I have lost a lot of them, but there are some still in a shoebox. I have no idea what might be on them, and short of sending them somewhere and paying a lot of money to some technician, I will never know what’s on them. I have another box filled with the smaller floppy disks, storing mostly records from my teaching days. I will never see any of that again. I have a backup HDD that has stopped working. Again, it is still possible to send things like this away somewhere and pay someone to recover whatever is salvageable, but I probably won’t take the trouble or the expense. I have had (when I was still a PC user — which is not quite like being a PCP user) three hard drives crash on three Dell computers (no need to ask why I have been a Mac user for the last 8+ years), and it took two of these crashes (this was in the old days, you understand) before I became a fanatical backup freak. I lost everything I had not printed from those two hard drives. Now I have two separate HDD backup drives, one that backups the entire computer once an hour, have made print photo books from the pictures that are most important to me, and back up all my photo and writing files to a “cloud” up there somewhere. I also store all the photos from the computer on DVDs, but I expect those to become unreadable in a decade or so.

That takes care of today, maybe next year, too. Or until one of those massive sunspot bursts fries the cloud and every other digital gadget, after which it won’t matter what electronic format you used.

I have no illusions that any library will have any interest in archiving my literary work. But if one did, having my computer files and records wouldn’t be worth much, because I don’t work that way. I’m still bound to paper and the marks I make on it. I write everything initially with a pen on paper, everything. Except emails and this blog, although I have written quite a large number blog posts in my notebook in a cafe and then later typed it into the blog. Looking back at the disappeared blog, most of the best of those posts were first written in a notebook with a pen and later typed into the blog format. There is no evidence of the process of my writing, except as I discuss it with myself in my journals. I do not keep preceding versions of anything; even if I wanted to, it would be practically impossible, I would have to get a warehouse to store it all. Each new draft annihilates the preceding. The work is all done with a pen on paper, then typed into a word processor, then printed, then the printed page edited with a pen, then that page written out by hand, and then typed back into the word processor, then printed, then edited with a pen, and so on; each edit in the word processor writes over the preceding one. Ultimately, when I have decided to abandon a work by typing “the end” on it, that appears to be the one and only version. I print a copy for myself, send the file to my agent, who prints submission copies, and that’s all there is. None of the hand written pages exist, each one by one having been destroyed when I am satisfied with that page’s edits.

Should we be concerned with posterity? Our personal version or in the grander scheme? That is another question, and if you are of the live for the day, there is no past and there is no future way of thinking, then enjoy your day.

I am interested in the lives of others (the movie, too), especially the lives of people with whom I am connected in ways both profound and trivial. I am curious about the past and how it effects our lives as we must live them now.

All we will know of eternity, and I use that word loosely, since it essentially has no meaning, is memory; not our memory, but how we endure in the memories of others. Frankly, I would just as soon endure myself, as I am, but I am given to believe that is unlikely. So I’ll take your memoires as a substitute. My children, my grandchildren, their children, their children’s children, and anyone who has ever known me or cared anything at all about me can bring me to life in their thoughts when they read the product of my thoughts, of my interior world, which I have left on paper, in printed books and in stacks of journals. I have no faith at all that anything that exists in the Xs and Os digital world will endure even the half-life of paper.

If you are a writer, this is worth your consideration.

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6 replies »

  1. All that’s true of course, but it’s also true a small to medium asteroid could render paper to ash. There are varying degrees of impermanence. The longevity of paper currently exceeds that of electronics, but perhaps that’ll change in the future? Writers will continue to work within whatever medium is presently available.

    There is no other choice. We do what we must whether it disintegrates or not.

    • An asteroid that rendered paper to ash would take readers with it, so it becomes moot. Our digital support structure is more likely to crumble, even without a catastrophic sun event; it is a far, far more nebulous medium than print on paper. It is worth noting that pixels have no autonomous existence, they are nothing more than a grouping of electrons into a pattern that disappears with its power source. To have the same effect with printing on paper, you would have to indeed start a fire that burned all the books and papers in the world.

      But that is not the point. I believe, with rare and suspicious exceptions, that few if any writers would, if given an equal choice, prefer to see their work exclusively in a digital form rather than a paper printed form, while the opposite would find more takers, if the choice was offered. Naturally both is best, but paper, if it must be one or the other, is probably going to win.

      That is also not the point.

      The point is the gamble of endurance, assuming up front that endurance is a quality one desires. If not, then none of this matters.

      If we keep progressing our tools in such a way that the predecessors become obsolete and essentially unusable, then endurance becomes a critical factor. How much is left behind in the dust with each transfer? What is lost in the fast move from 5 inch floppies to 3 inch floppies, from 8 track to cassete, from silver oxide film to magnetic tape to CDs, then to DVDs, and now what? Air. How much of our cultural life no longer exists in any tangible form? Now it’s all somewhere in the air, in Cyberspace, without any real hard existence. All the parts of our artistic and cultural and social lives we have “stored” in the air is only as real as the means to retrieve it. And with each evolution in means, much is left behind.

      That is, I think, the point.

      • Nice new look on the blog, btw.

        Philosophically speaking, I agree with Brad. Practically speaking, you make a host of good points, Don. Like you, I think it it is useful to compare the ongoing evolution of publishing to music. To wit, I started collecting music just as cassette tapes took off. So I never owned any records. In that brief time, roughly 1984 on, there have been at least 4 major format changes, with a few other failed attempts (remember the DAT?). The music I care about the most for the longest, I have now owned in at least 3 formats (tape, CD, MP3 or equivalent) and now have access to in another (streaming). Whereas thousands of songs and albums have been left behind, in tape and CD form. (Interestingly, I have shitloads of songs on MP3 that I don’t care about at all, but that nevertheless remain with me, just because they don’t take up any space other than some 1’s and 0’s on a hard drive. Whereas the forgotten tapes and CDs are slowly disintegrating in dusty closets in a western Nebraska farmhouse.)

        But who cares about those left-behind songs? Not me. I can happily live the rest of my life wihout hearing another Asia song (mid-80s tape), or Lightning Seeds tune (mid-90’s CD). They were effectively left behind by format changes, but would have been left behind regardless. Whereas, say, I would kick puppies to defend my last copy of Dire Straits Brothers in Arms, which I have owned constantly in one form or another since 1985. (Fortunately, with streaming, there’s no need to worry about a “last copy.”)

        It is at least possible that a similar winnowing will happen with literature. I think of my Kindle. Eventually it will die. But I have all the files backed up, so, as long as those files remain viable (no guarantee there), I will have them. If that file type becomes obsolete, as is likely, I would make efforts to get copies of the best of those works, the ones that meant the most to me, in another format. Possibly even paper. For instance, just glancing over some titles, I see I own a copy of Flatlanders. Not likely I’ll ever pick that one up again. But if for some reason I lose my copy of the Complete Works of Shakespeare, you can bet I’ll get that one downloaded again. Over time, then, changes in format cause you to winnow down your collection to what matters.

        This is my theory for today, anyhow.

        I discount the possibility of a sunflare or whatever destroying the internet. If that happens, then all other bets are off.

        • New format because it was just too freaky looking at my own eyes staring back at me every time I visited the site. I also wanted a larger font … eyes again.

          An old friend of mine a while back had a fire in his house in Kentucky; place burned to the ground with everything in it, his art and his books, included. He had probably 5000 books. When I saw him next, he told me that he actually felt free, really free, for the first time in his adult life. He could put everything he had left, everything he owned, in a single suitcase.

          I tried that once without the fire. I made a deal with myself on my 40th birthday that I didn’t want to own anything I couldn’t physically pick up by my 50th, and made it. I enjoyed the feeling for maybe a year. (I gave away a library of more than 5000 books in 1993, gave away or sold all my furniture, sold my house and cars.)

          I conceived of myself as a vagabond, footloose and fancy free. That feeling lasted a couple of years. Now, do I regret giving all that stuff (especially the books and art) away? You betcha, cowboy. It was a stupid thing to do.

          If this has a point, it is that for me I like having personal stuff around, things that mean something to me, even if I never actually use some of it, like books on the shelf I know I will probably never open again. Having access to stuff in the air or stored in the clouds just does not interest me, except as some temporary need, something important to me at that moment, but never likely to matter again, such as what was the temperature on some day in August, 1953, in Gdansk? The clouds can store that sort of thing.

          I have the LP of Brothers in Arms and the sound quality can make you weep like a baby.

  2. Oh, and your regret over giving everything away makes me determined to keep all that stuff I’ve got turning to dust out in the farmhouse. Who knows what I’ll want to see again someday?