In his 1999 article, “Escaping the digital dark age” Stewart Brand rigorously condemns the growing trend towards the digitization of information. “There has never been a time of such drastic and irretrievable information loss as right now” (46). He rejects the digital format as a viable storage alternative to that of traditional modes of information preservation, and believes that by putting everything in digital format we are creating a critical “loss of cultural memory” (46). In contrast, Kevin Kelly’s article, “Scan this book” praises the potential of digitization. He believes the creation of a universal, digitized library will help define our cultural identity, “pushing us rapidly towards that Eden of everything, and away from the paradigm of the physical paper tome” (2006, 2).
The shift to digital is mounting; books, essays, music, videos, films, anything that has been “published” is being given a digital facelift. The book industry is not the only one caught up in this transition, “Nearly 100 percent of all contemporary recorded music has already been digitized” (Kelly, 2). In the 2012 documentary, Side by Side, cinematographers and directors of photography are asked the compelling question – traditional or digital? As in the book world, film makers stand equally divided. Yet, regardless of which side of the divide one stands, everyone seems to agree on one undeniable benefit of going digital – storage becomes limitless.
Kelly notes the abundance of existing texts: 32 million books, 750 million articles and essays, 25 million songs, 500 million images, 500,000 movies, 3 million videos, TV shows and short films and 100 billion public web pages. He goes on to say that, “When fully digitalized, the whole lot could be compressed (at current technological rates) onto 50 petabyte hard disks. Today you need a building about the size of a small-town library to house 50 petabytes. With tomorrow’s technology, it will all fit onto your iPod” (2). Portability is a selling feature for film makers as well, and shooting on digital means never having to say, “Cut,” to change the film magazine; actors and directors are no longer bound to a 10 minute shoot. In addition to the limitless amount of storage, the directors of photography who have “gone digital” love the immediacy and adaptability that digital affords. These same points prove paramount in Kelly’s argument for digitization as well.
For Kelly, the Google Books Search team, and the 20,000+ publishers frantically scanning texts around the globe it is this potential to have all information accessible at the click of a button that drives their work. In Paul Martin’s CBC podcast, The great library 2.0, Adam Smith, Product Manager for Google insists, “Google never set out to become the world’s uber librarian, they just wanted to scan all of the millions of books to make them searchable.” But why is the ability to search all texts so important? Kelly believes that by connecting the world’s data in an overlapping, seamless stream of information we will have a better idea of what we know and what we do not know as a civilization. “Once text is digital, books seep out of their bindings and weave themselves together. The collective intelligence of a library allows us to see things we can’t see in a single, isolated book” (Kelly, 6). For those immersed in digitization, the power lies in harnessing today’s technological tools to cultivate information – past and present – to create a “new culture of interaction and participation” (7). An worthy endeavour to be sure. But who is thinking about tomorrow?
In his opposing article Brand acknowledges both the unlimited storage potential and the “searchability” that digitization affords. “We can now store, search, and cross-correlate literally everything…There is more room to store stuff than there is stuff to store” (46-47). But what preoccupies Brand is not what digital media can do for us now, but rather what no one seems to be thinking about for the future. “Digital storage is easy, digital preservation is not.” (47)
When it comes to successful preservation, the problems with digital artifacts are numerous. Firstly, digital has a limited lifespan. When Brand’s article was first published the half-life of digital data was five years. While current figures are much more promising, they still lack the permanency that the antiquated storage tools provide. Things like clay tablets, parchment, microfilm, and books, survive for 500 to 1000 years, more in the right conditions. In contrast, digital longevity seems to cap at 200 years.
In his article on preservation practices in a digital age, Marshall Breeding notes that beyond the undeniable problem of durability with CDs, DVDs, magnetic tape, and the like, is the even greater issue of compatibility. “If one were to assume that current data did survive, and did remain intact for 200 years, the real question is whether or not there would be hardware and/or software available to read it.” Compatibility is a colossal crisis in the digital era. To access a book, we need only open it, but digital data requires a device to store it, a program to identify and read it, and an operating system to run it. Programs and systems are changing more rapidly than ever before, and there are significantly more of them. If we add the web as an alternative for digital storage we then bring interrelationship problems into the mix – websites that lead to dead links, search engines like Google that limit access to only their scanned texts, and on and on the problems grow.
Kelly, the great proponent of digitization, acknowledges this fatal flaw; “Libraries aren’t eager to relinquish ink-on-paper editions, because the printed book is by far the most durable and reliable backup technology we have. Printed books require no mediating device to read and thus are immune to technological obsolescence. Paper is also extremely stable, compared with say, hard drives or even disks” (6).
Perhaps this is best summed up by a quote from Side by Side, “Nobody takes archiving seriously. Film is a capture medium and a storage medium. It will last a hundred years, digital will not….There have been 80 versions of video since the 50’s, most cannot be played now. 200 years from now there will be nothing of us left; we are fucked!”
Brand, Stewart. “Escaping the digital dark age.” Library Journal. 123. 2. 1999: 46-49. Web. 18 Sept. 2012. http://rense.com/general38/escap.htm
Breeding, Marshall. “Digital preservation: Building digital collections that will outlast current technologies.” Information Today. May. 2002. Web.
18 Sept. 2012. http://www.librarytechnology.org/ltg-displaytext.pl?RC=9718
Kelly, Kevin. “Scan this book.” New York Times. May 2006. Web. 15 Sept. 2012.
Kennedy, Paul. “The great library – 2.0.” Prod. Sean Prpick. CBC: IDEAS. 28 Feb. 2011. CBC Radio Broadcast. 18 Sept. 2012. http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Ideas/Full+Episodes/2011/ID/1826242021/?page=7
Postman, N. Technopoly: The surrender of culture to technology. New York: Vintage. 1992. Print.
Side by side: Can film survive our digital future? Dir. Chris Kennealey. Prod. Keanu Reeves. Perf. George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, James Cameron. Company Films. August 2012. Film.