December 1, 2011

Don’t Kill The Carrier Part 1 — The Digital Dilemma is a Communication Problem not a Format Problem

My first experience with 16mm home projection was during a sleepover at a classmate’s home. I was 7 and at the time in a private school in southern Oregon, which meant my classmate A) either lived in town or in an even smaller town somewhere within a 50 mile radius (it was the latter), and B) that his parents were either overly strict, religious, or anti-authoritarian (it was primarily the latter). For those of you not from the West Coast, this type of anti-authoritarianism tends to manifest on a broad continuum, with the peacelovehippies on one end, the Manson hippies on the other, and bulk represented in the middle by more of a Bakersfield/Five Easy Pieces kind of vibe.

Of course segments of these types mix together in contradictory ways. At my classmate’s house we were forbidden from watching Three’s Company because it was too racy, we went to a natural food store for snacks made from various puffed or toasted grains (after sneaking some Nerds and Bottle Caps on our way from the bus to his home), and we spent the evening watching 16mm educational films because his father worked for a distributor and could get a projector and films for free.

So my associative experience with 16mm film projection? Some combination of awe over moon landings, malnourishment (70s health food was a much different [soy-based] beast than what is available today), and primarily discomfort and slight concerns over my safety in case I made a reference to Loni Anderson or Soap. In my mind, viewing a film film in a non-theatrical venue equates to nervousness, low level fear, and hunger.

What, then, does this mean in terms of the format? Nothing, really. 16mm is not inherently Manson-like (8mm, perhaps), but these are my emotional attachments to the viewing experience. This is nothing against the format or the filmic experience — my next 16mm viewing came 20 some odd years later on a Brooklyn rooftop, discussing the deep magenta tone of a NYPL print of On The Town in between reel changes with my NYU archiving cohorts. There was probably a similar degree of fear and hunger involved, but, overall, a rather different experience than the earlier one.

Between these endpoints, my primary interactions with Cinema were the multiplex, television, home video, and TV/VCR combos rolled into classrooms. My film classes at two universities before NYU utilized projected VHS tapes, either from the library, Blockbuster, or dubbed from TV. Despite my chosen career and the obvious aesthetic qualities of film, my life and the lives of the bulk of people I know have to make me assume that over the past 30 years these types of experiences with movies are more representative of the broader culture than actual film projection.

And it is exactly these points of personal experience and aestheticism where the film-as-film preservation argument runs into the first of many impediments — not due to a question of quality but a question of how we communicate across a broad audience. We can write touching paeans about our personal attachment to film or create masterful homages to certain styles or periods in cinematic history, but in the end we have to consider whether these great enlightenment sermons are converting souls or just creating an emotional buzz for ourselves, whether they push ideas ahead or are more like resigned obituaries looking to reify the past ere it dissipates forever.

We also have to consider that media archiving and preservation extend well beyond motion picture film. Within the past 20-30 years how much content has been created on video as opposed to film? And what of audio? These media types do not have a viable long term format to migrate to outside of the digital realm, and many of them are already born digital. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves if a fundamental rejection of digital preservation and the work needed to establish archival methodologies in favor of film is ultimately detrimental to the preservation needs of non-film materials as well as the presentation needs of existing digital cinema.

The personal narrative can be an effective rhetorical angle, but it is not the entire argument. In order to more successfully advocate for the importance of media archiving and preservation we need to acknowledge that the unreceptive do not typically travel the Damascan road. Within the humanities, critical arguments based on the appreciation of all that is sweetness and light are valid but limited lines of reasoning. Limited because aesthetic arguments tend to be easily dismissed by those not of like mind or similar background as mere opinion or too soft, but also limited because it does not take full advantage of the skills a humanities education provides: analysis, questioning, interpretation, empathy, awareness of audience, historical perspective, and more.

As with all formats, the risks associated with digital media and its material differences from film are real and definable. The way those risks and differences are communicated — both in terms of creating awareness and establishing means of dealing with them — will greatly affect our ability to deal with the challenges and to gather the resources we need to do so.

Next: Don’t Kill the Carrier Part the Second: The Digital Dilemma is a Resource Problem not a Format Problem

Joshua Ranger

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  1. Dave Davis says:

    Great piece Joshua. While it may certainly be controversial in the archival community, and I entirely understand the benefits and need to preserve digital media in more stable formats than computer files (which change on whim), cost, practicality and strategy are variables of a broader design problem.

    Aside from the aesthetic dimension (much digital work can scale infinitely, while resolution is fixed in analog), digital work is preserved by fundamentally different means. Digital formats deliver safety mostly in numbers – many copies, widely distributed, ideally in multiple formats optimized for different delivery regimes is the only real security. A big earthquake or nuclear attack on NYC or LA might wipe out some or all analog copies of a piece, but the internet was built intentionally to survive such events.

    In audio there’s a presumption that etched grooves in a disc or magnetic pulses on a tape are inherently more secure than bits on a disc (optical or magnetic). It’s founded on a notion that it’s easier to decode and recover data from an analog medium, less dependent on potentially fragile, frequently changing technologies. This is mostly generational prejudice as far as audio is concerned. The same technology required to decode a magnetic tape can (eventually, with some effort and refinement) decode a magnetic disc. Optical media is inherently more robust than either, though it’s decoding requires some additional layers of decoding, and complexity. Observing grooves on a lacquer disc visually and transcoding that to sound is only barely less abstract than pits and lands on a CD or DVD – a good micro-optical scan.

    This case is less clear with visual (though much more obvious with interactive) mediums. There’s an undeniable immediacy of being able to view the image clearly in a frame. Unlike audio, it fixes the image in immutable format that requires no additional steps to see or decode. Yet an interactive piece can easily lose all aesthetic value in translation: potential for irony, contrast and emotional manipulation can be reduced or eliminated through linear presentation of a non-linear piece. In short, it’s easy to throw non-linear babies out with linear bathwater.

    Taken together this suggests traditional conservation methodology is flawed, at least where interactive and non-visual media (including but not limited to audio). We’re asking the wrong questions! First, we won’t necessarily find valid answers looking backwards. Even a hyper-realistic painting can’t convey the values and aesthetics of a photo (analog but especially digital, where a print may be just a part of a sequence of images, all of which have value), much less a film. Similarly attempts to encapsulate a digital flash piece (forget interactivity, consider scalability) in fixed resolution film miss the point. Second, as an approach, the volume of media vs the cost of analog storage are inherently at permanent odds. A fundamental rule of network-data aesthetics is that all data has value, but (like quanta) you cannot know the value at the time of creation. IOW, any discard pile of bits almost certainly contains unrealized value. Analog media presume primacy of edited, curated or presented pieces which networked data contradicts at a fundamental level. For example, in the UK terrorists have been quickly captured through retroactive analysis of networked cameras – what’s happening now may be far less important than what happened yesterday, but you don’t know that until the explosion occurs. This has been true since the assassination of JFK, but the addition of networks expanded the volume, quality and usefulness of 9/11 images.

    The good news is that optical media are stable formats with proven legs. CD’s approaching the longevity of analog formats like cassettes and reels as a delivery medium (tape had been common for 30 years prior to CDs, CDs long ago surpassed vinyl in ubiquity, while DVDs are crippled mostly by intent, with copy protection). So what’s missing is a “rosetta stone” for digital media – both a “bitscope” and algorithmic key to decipher executables. HTML5 is rapidly solidifying much of this, but formats like BluRay work against it through built in encryption.

    In my view, the real problem is mirrored in many facets of modern life. Simply: we lack any notion of a “common wheal” in most areas of life. Compulsory licenses were a giant leap forward, towards a common wheal in culture. The DMCA was a retreat back into the dark ages of 19th Century industrialism. A common wheal in media would recognize that public media (anything posted on the internet, sold in the iTunes store or Amazon, or rented from Blockbuster) are best secured through abundance and diversity, not hermetically sealed, proprietary formats. It’s fine to make money licensing technologies, and paying clever coders – but you should publish your codecs to protect the media/ideas they supposedly protect, in an era where security and market are derived from abundance. Conversely, fixed media and network avoidance are ideal solutions for private media. There are few good reasons to put movies of your kids on YouTube, if you’re seriously worried about predators. Current formats can be unlocked. Our attitudes are the problem in both directions, not the media.

    Of course, this is a huge, quantum leap. It will probably only resolve itself with generational change. Basically the dinosaurs must die off for mammals to thrive and evolve (btw – at 51 I’m certainly a dinosaur – I recognize most of my demographic violently disagrees with this position for understandable reasons). Progress is messy. In this case, we have to ask the right questions to find reasonable solutions.

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