Imperfectly preserved.

Tuesday, January 7th, 2020

I spend a lot of time, particularly at the beginning of the year, thinking about file formats and the preservation of all the content we’ve accumulated over 35 or 40 years of computing. I’ve always had good instincts when it comes to backups, but a backup, many years down the road, can end up being a faithful preservation of what is, to you as a human being, coded gibberish:

46484432 00090000 1EF017E8 17E81EF0 00000000 00000000 00004B05 00000000 012C012C 000A0000 00640002 01410000 0000007B 00000020 00B40000 114C6173 65725772 69746572 20494920 4E540000 00000000 00000000 00000000 064C6574 74657200

…and so on. Could you tell from this that it was a file created by Aldus Freehand 2.0 (and then updated by version 3.1), and, when opened with the correct program on the correct machine with the correct operating system, would looked something like this…?

Behold, the vector artwork for a billboard for a TV station in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, circa 1992. Actually, this was the low-res preview and the full-quality output had…well, never mind. This is work I designed and produced and was paid for and because I am a professional (I tell myself) about these things, I keep all the bits and pieces in case of…in case of…well, what exactly?

A planetary plague that wipes out the world’s logos?

An urgent phone call from Lancaster: “hey, you know that thing you did almost 29 years ago? We need a new copy of it! Yeah, of course we’ll pay you.”

Hardly seems likely. But I have that file, and literally millions of others. (That number seems less preposterous when you consider that television animation appears at 30 or 60 frames per second, and so ten seconds of just one layer of movement could involve some 600 files.) Backed up first on floppies, then on Zip disks, Syquest disks, tapes, CDs, DVD-ROMs, and now terabyte-sized hard drives and solid state drives. And of course there’s the finished television itself, on Betacam, Digital Betacam, D1, D2, one-inch videotape. All ancient, basically obsolete formats. All expensive at the time.

And now?

There’s a certain—I have no other word for it—comfort in being able to make perfectly clean images of standard definition television from years gone by show up on an old Sony Trinitron monitor fed by a five dollar Raspberry Pi computer almost so small it gets lost on my (literal) desktop, next to my coffee cup.

So once again, during this January that marks a new decade in the 21st century, I sit here…comfortable.