Sunday, August 21, 2005

Virtual Impermanence

As I've mentioned in previous posts, I've undergone some significant computer transitions this summer - a batch of new programs, upgrading to a new OS, backing up my entire drive, reformatting it, and migrrating back all my files after that OS became corrupted.

Some perturbing but enlightening things happened along the way. Text files I had written years ago for a ongoing book project - an anthology of stories about raising our daughters - were difficult to open. Word finally managed to translate these old AppleWorks files, but with all the formatting lost and lots of glitches. While migrating all my family photos back to the reformatted drive, I spent a hour in a state of panic trying to find two months worth of precious pics, including shots of my daughter's high school graduation and prom. Had I forgotten to back them up? Much to my relief, I finally found them.

In my readings of digital photography, I learned about the marvelous benefits of my shooting in RAW, except that the RAW format is specific to each camera brand, which means that sometime in the future that format might be abandoned, which in turn means that I may not be able to open those files with software of the future. Should I save my pics in the currently standard TIFF format, or the new Adobe DNG format that some experts think will become the new standard... or will these "standards" someday become obsolete too?

This summer I also transferred all our old family VHS video tapes to DVD, some forty disks worth. After completing this rather time-consuming project, I learned that the ink from the marker pens I used to label them tends to seep into the disk and may eventually damage the images. I also learned that an entirely new DVD format is on the horizon.

All of this has reinforced a realization that I have tried, over the past 25 years of using computers, to minimize or even deny: Cyberspace is replete with impermanence. Electrons whiz around the world at the speed of light, enabling us to reach into all sorts of online territories quickly and efficiently. But as Heisenberg aptly noted, electrons are uncertain, ephemeral things, as are the worlds constructed from them.
A person's email address is here today and gone tomorrow. As I type this sentence, there are probably hundreds or even thousands of people searching their computer for a file that mysteriously disapeared. When I first created my online book The Psychology of Cyberspace, I eagerly incorporated links to other Internet resources. One by one, almost all of those external pages disappeared, leaving behind dead links and 404s.

Given how quickly and efficiently we use computers to store incredibly large numbers of text, image, music, and movie files, it's comforting to think that we can create a large scale continuity of these resources over long periods of time. But with the wrong click of a button, those things are gone. If you aren't diligent in periodically transferring files into the new formats, they are as good as gone. And even if you are diligent, will your children and grandchildren be as conscientious in continuing to transfer those family photos into the now unimagined formats of the future?

All things must pass, the eastern mystics tell us. In our modern cyberspaced culture, we push the limits of that truth and immerse ourselves into media that come and go almost faster than we notice their existence. Does encountering impermanence on a daily, media-enhanced basis make us appreciate things more, or less?

While I think about that, I will continue printing out and binding all the chapters of that book about my children, as well as printing out and even framing some of my best digital photos.

3 Comments:

Blogger thecompu said...

Yes! Print those things out. Don't ever stop. I work in tech support and routinely run into people who store ALL of their family photos on a single hard drive. No backups. The chances they would experience a devastating fire and lose printed photos is much smaller than losing a hard ddrive, methinks.

8:27 PM  
Blogger John Suler said...

Methinks yourthinks is right on. If there's anything I've learned in all these years of computering, its save and backup, save and backup, save and backup.... and even then, print it out just to be sure!

12:16 PM  
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