[iDC] Musing on Shelf Life and Ephemeral Information

Alex Randall Alex at islands.vi
Sat Nov 17 16:34:57 UTC 2007

shelf lifeSeveral thoughts on shelf life. 

In 1999 the local government called for people to submit contents for a time capsule to be sealed for 100 years. 
I recorded a section of my radio including the call for contents and some other local content, copied the audio to MP3, reduced it to a CD and sent it in to the government.  On the day they sealed the capsule there was a news announcement about the opening of a time capsule in Colorado - sealed in 1900 to be opened in 2000.  Out of that box came a gold foil cylinder of audio recordings from the original Edison recording system.  No one had any  device to PLAY the cylinder and they ended up sending it to the Smithsonian - where they got Edison's original cylinder recorder out of a glass case to play the Colorado recording... Made me wonder if ANYONE in 2100 would have a CD drive and computer in a glass case anywhere that would play my CD in the sealed container... or if anyone would still recognize and of the code that was used to record it. 

In the 1990's the Smithsonian reported a problem because they have many data records made on 8 inch floppy disk media using the C/PM operating system but no longer had any working computers that ran either C/PM or could read 8 inch media. 

The lifespan of media is getting shorter and shorter. 

I have rolled over all of my data from my first PC (1981 IBM PC with 120 K 5.25 inch floppy drives) to each successive media as I evolve my personal computing.  from desktop to laptop to the next and the next - from my first 10 Mg HD to 250 GB disks to my terabyte box - - I have everything I have ever written and it has migrated onto whatever the latest HD in my latest system. I continue to copy forward to each new media and spread it around, so the whole kit and kaboodle in copied onto computers at work, at home at the university, and onto various back up media- CD's external HD's and so on.... yet while the contents of my programs has been faithfully copied, I now find that the programs that wrote the files are no longer able to run under the latest operating systems, so my old EasyWriter files and dBase 2 files are hard to access - not because I didn't save them but because the programs that wrote them are recalcitrant under Windows. 

Recently a law suit between two large corporations involved a debate over who created e-commerce.  I pulled out of my files my working on-line database system for buying and selling computers from 1983 and pulled the system off 5.25 inch floppies and brought that DB system into modern media. It may be seminal to the resolution of these companies dispute. 

In a desk drawer I have the letters my late parents wrote to each other from the 1930's.  
Easy to read today... Paper, stamps, ink, envelopes with post marks and addresses
My son sends Instant messages to his girlfriend.  They vaporize in an instant. 
Will there be anything left for their grandchildren to read about their love?
What will historians do with our era - there won't be anything left. 
People say "it is all backed up to data drivers somewhere.. but is it and what happens when those data records vaporize?

Most of my life I was told that Etruscan was a dead language.  No one could find any trace of it, lost.  gone... always cited as an example of how cultural stuff was ephemeral and could be totally destroyed.  In the world of Information Theory, Etruscan was the example that information could be totally destroyed and leave no trace.  yet here is the WIkipedia with a whole section in Etruscan. 

At Princeton in the 1970's sculptor James Seawright was making electronic sculptures and one comment was that his stuff had to be made with a conscious knowledge that it had a limited shelf life.  Electronics would die. The art had a limited life. 

Nothing lasts. 

Alex Randall
Professor of Communication 
Univ of the Virgin Islands. 

   I got into a huge row with a student in my Media Theory class this week about this very subject.
  We talked about the impact of durable media of any kind on culture.  The interesting thing we touched on is that of the lifespan of a video tape and that of a CD in terms of technological support, hardware availability, media durability.  His argument is that since all media degrade, it makes no difference how long it degrades - to him one year is the same as a hundred (e.g. silent  film). 


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