On Memory, Technology, and Digital Obsolescence, By Chuck Strom

Recently I ordered my set of DVDs of the 2012 World Series from Major League Baseball. I had deliberately delayed my purchase, and my patience was rewarded with a price that was half what had been offered during the holidays. I was pleased with MLB’s choice of games to include in addition to the four Series games: Game 5 of the NLDS in Cincinnati (the Buster Posey grand slam), Game 5 of the NLCS (the “RallyZito” game) and Matt Cain’s perfect game from June. All of them will see heavy viewing in the next couple of months while I wait for Opening Day, and after the season begins they will be kept in reserve to slip into a player whenever I need a reminder that life is worth living.

Statue_of_Willie_McCovey,_AT&T_Park[1]In our current technological landscape, where virtually every moment of our culture is digitally recorded and available at the click of a mouse or a tap of a smart phone, it may seem over the top to be grateful to purchase World Series games and watch them at leisure, but it is important to remember that it wasn’t always this way. Consider, for example, Game 7 of the 1962 World Series, when Willie McCovey smashed a line drive to Bobby Richardson in the bottom of the ninth inning to end the series and earn everlasting fame in baseball history—and in Charles Schulz’s Peanuts. No copies of the television broadcast, announced by Mel Allen and Russ Hodges, are known to exist. Until the 1970s television networks viewed sports, including championship games, as one-shot events with not enough residual value to justify the cost of storage. Consequently they erased game recordings whenever they wanted to reuse videotape—often only days after broadcast.

Bing_Crosby[1]For those who treasure such moments, the magnitude of the loss is immense, and it is a cause for celebration whenever a lost broadcast is found. In 2010 MLB announced that a recording of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, another famous classic, had been discovered in Bing Crosby’s wine cellar. Crosby, an avid baseball fan and a part-owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was superstitious about attending the game and arranged for it to be recorded in kinescope while he traveled to Paris to listen to the shortwave radio broadcast. The discovery earned a feature article in The New York Times, and the MLB Network rebroadcast the game and packaged the recording in a DVD set with commentary and interviews from several of the surviving players. Considering the attention now paid to these artifacts of our culture, it seems beyond belief that they ever could have been regarded as disposable.

Voyager_probes_with_the_outer_worlds[1]Current attitudes are more enlightened on cultural preservation, particularly since the economic value of broadcast recordings has grown exponentially in relation to the cost of storage, now in the form of disk space. Those who would declare the problem to be solved, however, fail to account for the concept of digital obsolescence. When records, including broadcasts, are stored on electronic media, our ability to access them depends not only on the survival of the media but also the equipment on which they were designed to be read. This can present difficulties even when abundant resources are devoted to preservation. Clifford Stoll, an astronomer who worked on the first Voyager project, once described in his book Silicon Snake Oil how data transmitted from the satellite’s encounters with Jupiter in the 1970s were carefully preserved on several different types of media suited to the computers of the time, including varieties of magnetic tape and punch cards. By the 1990s the records themselves remained lovingly preserved in warehouses dedicated to the purpose, but the computers to read them had virtually disappeared as advancing technology made them obsolete. The possibility remained to transcribe the records to more current media, but their volume made the cost prohibitive.

Edison_Phonograph[1]Most of us, underneath our modest facades, have dreams of being remembered for our accomplishments, and in this sense the transience of archival media can be depressing. Regardless of what we might achieve in this life, it could be only a matter of time before all traces of our existence will be lost, if only because future generations will not consider it worth the time or effort to preserve them. Even such dominant figures in 20th-century America as Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra could, given a century or two, become little more than arcane curiosities, with their recordings as difficult to find as the music originally captured on Thomas Edison’s wax cylinders.

All of this may be just a roundabout way of repeating the sentiments expressed in the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes, a work unique in the Bible for its pessimistic outlook. Its most applicable verse in this context reads as follows:

For of the wise man, even as of the fool, there is no remembrance forever; seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. And how doth the wise man die even as the fool! (Ecclesiastes 2:16, American Standard Version)

These are harsh words. In one way, however, they are now obsolete. Though scholars no longer accept King Solomon as the traditional author of Ecclesiastes, the book was written no later than 180 BCE, when other Jewish works began to quote from it. In other words, it has been with us for a very long time. It has survived wars, pestilence, and the collapse of empires. It has even survived the whims of canonical councils deciding which books belong in the Bible. For all of its emphasis on the empty impermanence of human endeavor, its relevance in our present day suggests the possibility, regardless of technological obstacles, that we can do something good enough on Earth to be remembered by our children and generations to come.

And while it may be conceited to harbor such ambitions, others have voiced them on occasion. Consider these words from Ernest Hemingway, a man of occasionally questionable wisdom who usually got things right when it came to writing:

It’s enough for you to do it once for a few men to remember you. But if you do it year after year, then many people remember you and they tell it to their children, and their children and grandchildren remember and, if it concerns books, they can read them. And if it’s good enough, it will last as long as there are human beings. (Malcolm Cowley, “Portrait of Mr. Papa,”, Life Magazine, January 10, 1949)

Survival to the end of human history may be a bit much to ask, but Ecclesiastes has made it through two millennia and counting. A brief moment in geological time, to be sure, but I would happily settle for that.

Chuck Strom

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