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.