[iDC] shelf life

Eric Goldhagen eric at openflows.com
Sun Nov 18 17:34:27 UTC 2007

As someone who is a technologist and rather explicitly not an 
academic, I tend to lurk on this list and don't contribute often, 
however a lot of this conversation has missed something that I feel 
is very important so I've forced myself to take some time away from 
deadlines and add my thoughts to the thread. This post might be a bit 
jumbled, but if I take the time to write another draft -- given how 
often I find the time to write -- it won't get out this year. I hope 
some might find the ideas valuable to the discussion.

As creators of digital works, if we want our work to survive over 
time, we need to be aware of a number of issues. Many comments have 
confused or combined content/storage media and file/content format 
into one (and most if not all have ignored licensing). It is critical 
that they be seen as separate factors that lead to either the 
digital-dumpster of history or to the potential of being archived and 
accessed over time.

Critical to the issue of shelf-life for digital works is the use of 
Free Software and Open File Formats.

Content/license: how you view your place in history defines how you 
try to control your work. Will you allow people to disassemble your 
creation and make parts of it their own? Are you the latest link in a 
history/long chain reaction of creativity, or are you an island in 
time claiming no connection to the past and with nothing to pass to 
the future?
Do you let your tools/software/etc make this decision for you by 
using proprietary tools and closed file formats or do you make an 
active decision on tools based on a desire to create something that 
can be shared? The more you try to keep control over your work, the 
less possible it will be to have a long shelf-life.

Storage Media: a couple of posts in this thread have made reference 
to a physical storage media and its potential to go extinct. CD's 
degrade, drives die, paper can burn... It is important to not tie 
your creation too tightly to the physical means of distribution if 
you desire a long shelf-life.

Content/file format: this is critical if you want shelf-life. if you 
do not create using open file formats that can be accessed and 
converted over time, you are locking the life of your work to the 
whim of a corporate board room. This is especially critical if you 
have created a work that requires the tools of creation in order to 
be displayed. If the works that Leonardo da Vinci created while 
looking through his telescope required such a telescope to be viewed, 
would any of us have ever seen them? If you want to create work that 
can be preserved, you must use formats that you have the right to 
access, even if the company that produced it decides to never upgrade 

The tools you use: while many of you might not have the skill to 
modify software, using tools that you have the right to modify is 
critical. Someone mentioned having created a work that will never 
again be accessed because viewing it is locked to tools that require 
Mac OS 9. Based in proprietary tools and locked to a proprietary 
operating system, there is little hope of ever being able to change 
that situation.

Why have the works of Euripides had long shelf-life? Public domain 
tools and open formats -- encodings that can be converted to modern 
languages even if the original format is no longer in use.

The discussion of what it means to create art with tools you don't 
own or control is one I'd like to see happen more often (keep in mind 
that you never own proprietary software even if you pay for it).

I think that this is an important part of the shelf-life discussion. 
Do you use Free tools and open formats? If not, why? Is the thought 
of tools and formats even part of your creative process? If not, why?

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