A quipo from the Dead Media Archive
I recently heard a radio interview with a librarian somewhere in the government who was explaining how difficult it is to keep up with the various data storage methods that have been developed over the last twenty-five years. Not only do they need to archive the old storage media, but also the machines and software that existed when the information was created. I had a demonstration of this last summer when I was in Washington D.C. and had the opportunity to visit the National Public Radio headquarters. Part of the tour was in their archives, which take up a very large, climate-controlled room full of rows and rows containing racks of spooled audio tape. They are now in the process of digitizing all of these tapes. It seems like such a huge task—so huge that they may not even finish before there is some other media that comes along to replace their current process. On a more personal note, my family has both work and personal stuff on floppies, zip drives, and even Syquest disks, and I’m reluctant to part with an old eMac that has a floppy, zip, and CD drive and an old operating system, just in case I might want to revisit any of our own “archives”.
It sure seemed simpler in my parents’ era when the family history was generally recorded in a photo album with black pages and my mom’s handwriting in white ink. Now, family photos can be on a server somewhere on the Internet or saved to a hard disk that more than likely will become as obsolete as that Syquest drive. Most photos never become “hard copy” versions anymore, remaining in the ethereal state of pixels on a screen—binary code that relies on the right technology to read it and the right kind of device to display it. This seems like such a potentially fragile system of data and record storage, like the quipo that Sterling talks about. We can only guess as to what information the Incans were trying to preserve and what stories may be trapped in the quipos’ knots.
I’ll admit that I do get a thrill with new software that makes it easier (and more interesting) to get my job done and it was awesome to Skype with my daughter while she was in Russia last summer. But I can’t help but feel anxious about the ever-accelerating pace of “technological improvements” and the potential for outrunning ourselves in this race to whatever it is that we seem to think we need.