Memories Last, but Media Fade

Home-movie addicts know the score. First, they converted their Super8 film to videotape and now they're struggling with the move toward storage on digital technologies such as CD and DVD. Where will it all end?

It doesn't.

There are three guarantees in technology. It gets better. It gets cheaper. And over time, it changes so much that what once worked perfectly fine no longer works at all. There's also a fourth rule that's true much of the time, but not always: Technology will find a way to fix the problems technology brings.

As technology evolves, stuff stored on one medium might no longer be readily accessible. It's not that images on Super8 film suddenly become unusable. But try to find a functioning projector on which to show them. In the future, you'll no doubt have the same problem as you're forced to convert your discs to some new storage medium, such as crystals.

If you think you've got troubles, consider folks with a lot more stuff to record than you. They've figured out how to deal with constantly changing technology and so will you.

Government agencies such as the National Archives struggle to keep information stored on various media--wax phonographic cylinders, film, magnetic computer tape--usable for scholars. The folks charged with keeping the nation's history intact and available to researchers are constantly converting documents and recordings into other formats, waiting for the next technological tectonic shift.

And then converting everything again.

Even the high-tech masters grapple with the issue. "It's something that goes on constantly," said NASA spokesman Don Savage. His agency has been recording data for years from satellites, planetary landings, weather balloons and ground-based observation stations. Bear in mind that for decades great gobs of these data were encoded on technological relics such as computer punch cards.

IBM shut down its last punch card manufacturing plant back in 1985, when it became obvious that everything would move to magnetic storage media such as the floppy disk. Finding machines that can read punch cards is pretty problematic these days.

Fortunately, NASA, like most other entities that manage oceans of data, routinely converts information into modern formats. But modern is a relative term. "There's already some concern that data recorded on CD might need to be recorded again so that they'll work in future machines," Savage said.

This does not bode well for consumers who fear that their precious memories will someday exist only in, well, memory. What happens if the technology jumps so far and so fast that the stuff we take for granted today, such as videotape and VCRs, become rusted relics?

For sure, kids of the future will look at you funny when you start waxing nostalgic about your old magnetic tape VCR. But odds are good that they'll get an even bigger laugh out of watching you do the funky chicken dance at your cousin's wedding--embedded in whatever exotic medium exists 50 years from now.

Because there's such a massive amount of consumer-created content--from home movies to personalized music mixes--out there, a huge market for conversion probably will arise. Where there is profit to be had, private enterprise will find a way to collect it.

And what of technical issues? Won't there come a time when the knowledge of how to listen to or view those recordings is simply lost?

Not likely. Consider the work of a British computer scientist named Don McLean. He's successfully decoded the world's earliest known recordings of television broadcasts. Some of these date back to 1927 and were made by pioneer John Logie Baird.

Those early recordings were made on shellacked discs, like a phonograph record. Historians have known of their existence for years but were completely frustrated at every attempt to examine the images locked inside because the machinery to play them back doesn't exist. In fact, it might never have existed since it's not clear that Baird ever overcame the problems that plagued playback of the discs.

But McLean studied the data on the discs and developed methods of extracting them. By digitizing them onto a computer and reproducing them in ways that approximate what the images must have looked like when first broadcast, McLean gives viewers a glimpse of the world at a time when radio was still considered miraculous. If you'd like to gaze upon McLean's handiwork, you can see these original images of television broadcasts at http://www.dfm.dircon.co.uk/recordng.htm.

Those grainy, distorted pictures certainly don't compare to films of the time, but as historical records--take a gander at the dancing Paramount Astoria Girls on the world's first television special, from 1933--the images are priceless.

As is the information locked up in your movies, videos and audio tapes. For just that reason, it's safe to say that there's going to be a huge market for media conversion of such treasures for many decades to come. Unlike the transition from Super8 to video, though, much of this conversion will be doable at home as users convert signals on one medium to signals on another.

Which is, of course, bad news for those of us who'd rather not watch the videotape of your wedding. Again. But I suppose it's a small price to pay for letting our descendants get a better handle on what life was like in the 20th century--funky chicken and all.

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Dave Wilson is The Times' personal technology columnist.

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* Dave Wilson answers reader questions in Tech Q&A.; T8

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