DIGITAL MEDIA LIFETIME

Published February 8, 2013 by Tony

RELIABILITY AND DURATION OF STORED DATA

I’m not a centenary, but during my short life I however have seen a number of technological changes in the field of multimedia storage.
I was just a boy when tape-cassettes began to take the place of bulky stereo8 cassettes, years in which still held sway vinyl discs.
Who kept them in the car was forced to have a box in the bonnet to cram them all.
Then, at the first stereo player change, people took the opportunity to buy a new cassette player and many, slowly, had also to buy back the titles of their favorite artists on tape.
A few years later I then attended, happily, another major change, the arrival of VHS, which sent  the old Super8 mm film in retire. A great innovation!   

This format was so successful that in the world the VCR is considered the most common unit after TV-set and fridge!
Even camera adopted this new support, at the expense of the first Betamax and Video8, both Sony branded.
To create more manageable units, the support was then miniaturized, creating the mini-VHS (VHS-C), that kept intact its technical characteristics.
I think because of this change, many have lost so many old cherished memories, on that time recorded on film, aside from those who, informed or by chance, were able to transfer anything on VHs, by himself or by special laboratories on fee.
Do we not expect at all that after about 20 years things would change again!?
In fact, today, we can say that VHS, after a long agony, is died, permanently replaced by DIGITAL support.

CD, DVD and Blu-ray with digital cameras and DVD players/recorders, represent current technology.
Even what was the long-lived support, impossible to disappear – the photographic film –  has disappeared from the scene, replaced by cameras and digital cameras.
It all started with computers, of course, because digital media are born to stock up on computer data.
But despite digital devices and computer are newcomers in the field of popular technological innovations, in their short history they already count “dead & missing” both in terms of digital media and software.
For those who do not know, the first popular media storage for PC were the 5 1/4 and 3.5 inches floppy disks.
5-inch and quarter were the first to die, but today floppy disk are not even installed on new computers!
Needless to have 1024 Kbyte when a CD can hold 700.
But again, expense and time wasted!
Because after CD then the DVD came, with its 4.7 GB of space, which for sure will soon be replaced by the double layer with twice the capacity and double-layer and double-sided!
Besides, on the scene then Blu-ray came.
And who knows what will happen in next few years!
But important and radicals changes also took place in relation to operating systems.
DOS, Windows, and Linux, just to mention the most important founders of the most widely SO used around the world.

To do an example, if in the ’60s Mr. Tom had recorded the film of his marriage, in the 80s not to lose it, he was forced to transfer it (with loss of quality) on VHS. A few years ago, before the VHS disappeared altogether he had to copy it to DV tape or DVD, with further loss of quality. In 40 years three methods of recording are changed and, beyond the degradation due to the time, the next two transformations have deteriorated greatly the quality of the original, despite the best qualities of the new media.

Instead, Mr. John who had kept data on a floppy disk, was forced to transfer them to CD, and wishing he could then burn them to DVD, but here, despite the fact that at the level of bits (digital) there was no loss quality of the copies, we must consider more important factors, about the operating software for the translation of data.
An application or document (a letter, a presentation or a slide-show), created in the 70s under DOS environment no longer works with computers operating under Windows. The same could happen in the future with what we’re going to create and keep today.
Nothing is certain.

I shudder and am taken by a strong discomfort in thinking that primitive men sent signs engraved on the rocks that have survived more than 2000 years and that if well preserved today, after 5000 years, even an ancient Egyptian papyrus is still perfectly readable!
Instead, today, Tom finds himself, after only 40 years and many adventures, with data strongly degraded and the risk of losing them in a few more decades.
Mr. John, instead, with the inability to have access to digital data stored no more than 30 years ago.

Every time I keep some digital photos burning them on CD or DVD, I think about the alterability of data and lifespan of the physical media.
Despite yellowed, in old albums, with pleasure, satisfaction and amazement I still find photos taken more than 100 years ago by my ancestors, while among computers, peripherals, and programs I have lost, and perhaps will continue to lose, data and digital information.
How many times does that damn “track 0” gave back a defaced floppy, or we have received the message “unable to read the CD,” bringing us to lose the data stored?
Not to mention, then, hard-disk, which once marred, put us practically our knees!
One wonders if this is true technological innovation and what are the limitations to keep in mind.

CD & DVD
Without a doubt, today the most popular and practical solution to store digital information is given by CD and DVD media.
Bill Gates’ aim, a computer in every home, is now a reality and if you add common DVD recorders and cameras that record directly onto (mini) DVD, this supports this statement.
Previously I mentioned the obsolescence of the hardware and software, necessary for reading electronic documents, and especially multimedia data that are more complex and therefore more critical than just a simple ASCII text. The duration of physical media digital media (electronic, magnetic or optical) is not known with certainty, and is likely to be lower than the data set in stone, on papyrus or paper that our ancestors used in the past.

But as said, if the problem was only the duration of the physical support, it would be enough periodically copy it, apart from the inevitable “oversight” that would, as often happens, brings to lose data. In fact, the mere preservation of a cd-rom, or its regular copy,  becomes useless if a reader or machine (hardware) does not survive, together with the existence of programs (software) that can understand  and translate those data into a human-readable language. In general, the risk of persistence in time of the electronic documents are:

1 – Lack of physical duration of media for data storage (CD-ROMs, DVDs, hard drives, tapes, etc.)..
2 – Hardware Obsolescence for decoding media (readers, drives, etc..).
3 – Obsolescence of software for the interpretation of the data (word processors, different program reading and sharing format, graphics programs, presentation programs, browsers, etc..).
4 – Obsolete hardware and Operating Systems.

Market strategies, at least for the moment, there are none, since in this situation is precisely the market (companies) to earn, and innovation lies, both in terms of costs and  of data loss, on the shoulders of consumers .
Those who, like me, had the chance to see the picture of his great-grandfather or have in his hands a postcard sent by his father in 1946, during the II war, they now are worried that with the advent of digital, their great-grandchildren wouldn’t do the same in the future, by electronic documents preserved today.
According to the characteristics declared by digital media’s manufacturers, a CD or DVD should last many years (according to many factors from 3 to 30?), but in reality this is hardly the case, and from personal experience, even if having preserved diligently the supports, I have often found, after a few years, with CD partially or totally illegible.
For this, for some time, I’m doing multiple copies of my personal memories (photos and videos), and since this problem also applies to the old magnetic media (cassettes, VHS tapes, reels, etc.). time ago, with patience & time, I also digitalized some old family memories. A lot of work!

To conclude, here are 5 steps to consider for the protection of our electronic documents in relation to the duration:

1 – Check periodically your media and their readability
2 – Adoption of more standard machine languages and software.
3 – Constant data transfer on new digital media.
4 – Translation and transporting data by the new languages and software, which change over time.
5 – Choose, how a further alternative, archives available online.

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