February 12, 2013

The Cost of Inaction

Much like the way we use landmarks to mentally map our movements through physical space, the mind seeks temporal and experiential references to help map our movements through time. This is not the Proustian madeleine of sudden remembrance, but the purposeful notation and recall of related or unrelated experiences/events/stimuli (there must be a single French word that means all of these things) that we can connect to a time and place of memory.

Increasingly those exstimuvents are tied to media. The song that was playing everywhere as I was making the transition to middle school and puberty (Pour Some Sugar On Me — On MTV every day just before the “Half Hour Comedy Hour” at 4:00.). The movie I saw on my first sort of date (Fried Green Tomatoes — She cried about her dying grandma. I walked her to her car and then walked home.). That book everyone was toting around under their arm in college but not actually reading (Infinite Jest — Can’t really say anything about it except it was heavy.).

Media has become such a powerful referential in this way because the viscerality establishes a fixity that counteracts the failings of our own minds. Memory is the ultimate unreliable narrator. Stable, widely familiar landmarks help to reenforce or defend what we (believe we) recall.

However, this reliability is much less stable than it seems and than it is in the physical world. For every true reference point there are any number of false or obscuring ones as our minds are clouded by nostalgia, shaped by newer media that narrows historical moments to shorthands and the canonical, or struggle with measuring time as we feel it personally against the more rigid units of years and decades with which we attempt to confine eras and epochs.

I often think about how the millenium is one of these false landmarks. For so long we were obsessed with the approach of the year 2000 and the false significance of round numbers (as well as the easy math they enable) that it became a measuring stick of sorts, both for measuring forward (Only seven more years until 2000!) and backward (1978 was 22 years before 2000, so I can buy this beer.). The problem is, sometimes it feels that we cannot get past this reference point. When I think about the 1980s, I immediately think of them as not more than 20 years ago, and the later part of the decade is practically yesterday. But then I prompt myself to remember to add all those years after 2000 to my calculations. 1975 isn’t an in-its-prime 25 years ago, but a slower, creakier-kneed 38. Half as much older and not getting any younger.

In the grand scheme of universal time those extra years make no difference. In the grand scheme of human lifespans — I keep trying desperately to convince myself — they don’t make a huge difference. Right now, at least.

But, in terms of media preservation, this difference is huge. At this point, every year is huge. Every year that passes, every year we dither away by not taking action to reformat, more and more media shifts into the high risk zone where it becomes less and less likely that we will be able play it back and transfer it. And this isn’t just about degradation of the object — of which academic arguing over lifespans has contributed to the feeling that we can keep things stored away for a bit longer and maybe they’ll be okay. It is about the whole ecosystem of media creation and management. Decks are going away. The equipment needed to repair and calibrate what decks are left are going away. The human expertise in dealing with formats and equipment is going away. Rubber and plastic. Flesh and bone.

I always feel a reluctance to sound like a Chicken Little on this issue, but seeing the state of many collections over the years and the amount of work that needs to be done but hasn’t even started, I am not optimistic. To put a number on it, many of us feel we’re looking at a 15-20 year window to achieve media preservation at a reasonable cost and reasonable quality. When we balk at the cost of processing, reformatting, and storage we ignore the long term costs of not doing these things — unfindable assets, inaccessible collections, more difficult and more expensive efforts, and loss of materials. Those false warning signs on the path to preservation can instead divert us down the trail of inaction, which is where the real costs and dangers lie.

Joshua Ranger

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