The Trouble with Modern Media

180 years ago, a British fellow named Charles Dickens wrote some books. Over the decades and centuries, those books have been studied by millions of students around the world, they have been in libraries and been translated into many languages.
If you found the original manuscript to any of those books, aside from being able to sell them for a fortune, you would still be able to read them. Sure the ink has probably faded in some places, the paper is fragile, and the cursive script they were written in is finally starting to become obsolete – but they would still be accessible to the majority of English speaking readers.
About two years ago, while putting together a collection of my short stories, I attempted to find the first draft of a story I wrote in the 1990s – a mere 20 years ago.
I had saved the first draft on a 5 inch floppy disc – the most popular transportable medium of the time. As that format quickly became obsolete, I copied my story archive onto 3 ½ inch floppy discs – a format that survived quite a bit longer than the soft floppies that preceded them. When larger capacity storage devices were introduced, I copied my stories, my photos and most of my artwork onto Iomega Zip discs, then onto Jaz discs, then onto cd, usb, and ultimately stored some of them on my websites.
Somewhere along the way, many individual files had gotten lost. No trace of them on the website or on usb. I no longer have a working Jaz drive, so I was unable to check my four Jaz discs. I had most of that data burned onto cd about 10 years ago, but some of the files, including the ones I was looking for, somehow never made it to cd. I do have a working Zip drive and spent many hours going through directories and file folders on the twenty or so Zip discs around the house. We no longer have a computer that can read floppy discs of any kind, so paying to have someone else search through hundreds of floppy discs for files with cryptic names (that may or may not be the right file), was beyond my means. And some of the files, once found, were in obsolete word processing formats.
Since 1995, I figure I’ve lost hundreds of files that I intended to keep – simply because of the evolving technology and the continuing need to update the archive to newer and better storage media. I’ve created a number of graphic stories that vanished completely when I failed to renew the domain names of the websites they were stored on. Most of the published stories are still around in print format if I consider them worth the time it would take to transcribe them. But most of the computer generated artwork is gone forever.
There is an upside of this: much of what I created back then is embarrassingly bad – so it may be better for my ego that it’s gone forever.
I know I'm not alone with this frustration. Sure, there are solutions –  but I've never encountered solutions that are easily and inexpensively available to the general public. Many artists have, like me, thrown out older versions of work simply because that work is no longer easily accessible to them. I do think that if Charles Dickens had been writing through the 1980s and 90s, there is a very real danger that many of his stories would be lost forever – disintegrated into digital flotsam and drifted away on the tides of time.
Throughout history, many of the works that are now considered great works of literature, were obscure at the time of publication and only recognized as significant much later. As print publication is replaced by electronic publication – there is a real danger that much of the material produced in the late 20th and early 21st centuries – if it wasn’t immediately popular, and thus saved in a large number of places and formats – will simply vanish.
This is a reprint of my Linked In article from 2015

Comments

  1. It's a sobering observation. I'm setting up my printer as soon as I've finished typing this...

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