Hot Buttered Death
the southern white crap that talks back
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Thursday, April 17, 2003  

Ken was musing in the comments to this post:

I'm also fascinated by the human drive to immortalise oneself, whether through conquest, career achievement, literature, art or whatever. Should we seek Buddhist annihilation of self and so minimise the suffering of being, or accept that egoistic ambition and suffering are the rocket fuel of human progress? Blogging in some of its forms might be a manifestation of the drive to immortality.

But blogging is really a bad choice if you're trying to achieve some sort of immortality. Indeed, almost any form of digital or electronic media is a bad choice. The world does not lend itself to permanence, after all, and electronic media least of all.

I frequent the alt.movies.silent Usenet newsgroup. There was a thread started recently about fires in film archives, and along the way that developed into a sub-thread about audio preservation, how in the late 1960s companies like CBS starting transferring all their sound recordings onto cassette tape (!) so they could free up storage space by destroying the original discs and open-reel tapes. That in turn led to someone just today mentioning a tape made around 1939 of a Polish pianist playing on Vatican radio... the tapes were found to still be playable, so a copy was made of them. The tapes then disintegrated as soon as the transfer was finished. A historical moment was thus preserved, but it very nearly wasn't.

On the other hand, a hundred years after Enrico Caruso made his first recordings, we can still go back to his original recordings. Why? Because they were produced on disc. The sound is accordingly rough, but we can still play those century-old discs. Go back even further, we can still (just) hear Johannes Brahms playing one of his own Hungarian Rhapsodies on a cylinder in 1889. In 2062, will they be able to use the original tape of "Love Me Do" by the Beatles for the 100th anniversary of their first release? I suspect not.

Videotape poses similar problems. Doctor Who is the classic example of a television company deciding their own product has no more commercial value and destroying it, as witness the wholesale destruction of episodes of the show during the 1970s (such 1960s episodes as still exist are all on film transfers; none survive on video) by erasing the original tapes. Even into the 1980s you find some tapes survive in less than optimal condition. For the video release of the 1984 story The Awakening, the restoration team had to repair a scratch on the master tape that had probably occurred while the episode was being transmitted.

And yet, as with sound recordings, we can go back a hundred years or more to the original sources. We can still watch the Lumiere brothers' employees leaving the factory because we can still take the film and shine a light through it. You can't shine a light through videotape to make it give you pictures, just as you can't get sound from an audiotape by dropping a stylus on it. 109 years after they walked out the factory gate, we can still see the Lumieres' workers buggering off home. Only twenty or thirty years after they were made, TV companies are lumbered with tapes they can't use.

The written word on paper, of course, has the best chance of all. It's why (to use the example I'm currently reading) Penguin Books can release a translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses made by Arthur Golding in the mid-1500s. It's why Arthur Golding could make his translation of Ovid in the first place. It's why we can still read Homer; the written texts were copied across the centuries and so come down to us today. It's why Aristotle's Athenian Constitution was rediscovered in 1890, and why Menander's Misanthrope was rediscovered in 1957, about 2300 years after each was written. And it's why we have the Dead Sea Scrolls.

These are all what you could call analogue media. Of course, they're not perfect; as I said, the world tends to impermanence anyway, and classical literature in particular is in quite mangled shape. We have 28,000 lines of Homer, but we don't have a single intact poem by Archilochus. Of the whole corpus of 5th/4th century Greek drama, something like only 45 complete plays still exist (7 by Aeschylus and Sophocles, 19 by Euripides, 11 by Aristophanes and one by Menander). Greek tragedy was commonly presented in trilogy form; Aeschylus' Oresteia is the only extant complete trilogy. The written word is not fireproof, after all. If you have the only copy of something and you put a match to it, it's gone.

Same goes for film. To be a film lover, after all, is to weep for the sheer volume of lost celluloid. The figure I've seen quoted on alt.movies.silent are that about 10,000 silent features were made in the US from 1912 to 1931, and about 2500 of those survive in some form today (about 500 only in fragmentary form). The other 7500 are lost. That's not counting short film production during and before the same time period, nor indeed production around the world. The Phillippines apparently has only four films made there still in existence from before 1970 or something. There was a vault fire in Mexico twenty years ago that destroyed 6500 films made there since the 1890s. Just because a print survives in an archive doesn't mean it can't still get lost.

You don't seem to hear about lost sound recordings as much, but it happens. A friend of mine has a set of old recordings of Bruckner symphonies, including one of the sixth symphony recorded in 1942. The CD issue is missing the first movement of the symphony because the original discs for the first movement are lost. While we have all of Robert Johnson's recordings, alternate takes of several of his songs recorded at those 1936 and 1937 sessions remain missing. Some early Beatles recordings for EMI that were thought lost have since turned up, but two of their audition recordings for the label remain lost.

Still, analogue media have, I think, a better chance than digital ones. The survival of data on a computer or CD is dependent upon that device remaining active and useable. Some CDs have a documented problem with disc rot and bronzing, and as someone once said, while a scratch on a vinyl record can just be annoying, a scratch on a CD can be deadly to the disc. As for computers, they can always be hacked. Didn't OzBlogger Rob Corr lose his entire blog archives to a hacker recently. A simple crash can cause enough havoc. I lost a couple of years worth of email and saved newsgroup posts in a crash a couple of years ago.

The Internet is, however, the medium most prone to impermanence. I know there are still web pages and FTP archives out there that haven't been changed for anywhere up to ten years, but for the most part the Internet is all about change and dynamism. Site designs change all the time. If you use style sheets, you can redesign an entire website in seconds. The current look of my own blog is about the sixth or seventh that I can remember doing. And because it's all about change, the look of the web as it used to be is becoming lost all the time.

I put up my first website in August 1998. The domain I used (sublet to me by the friend who owned it) no longer exists. The webpages themselves no longer exist in their old forms, either. I kept changing the design and the content as I changed the site. This is the earliest version of my old site that I can find, and that was the fourth or fifth design I came up with for it. I don't have any examples of the designs I had before then.

Things change, time passes, what used to be there isn't any more and the record of how things develop is lost. Things like the Internet Archive exist and some websites are actually officially archived by government libraries, but by and large the Internet is all about things changing and disappearing and leaving little trace. I can go into a used books place like Gould's and pick up (as I once did) a copy of an out-of-print book like Thomas Carlyle's The French Revolution printed in 1889 for twelve bucks. It's hard to do that with a website.

That, at last, is why I think Ken's bit about "blogging [as] a manifestation of the drive to immortality" isn't quite right. You can change wording in your blog, delete whole posts even, hardly anyone will notice the difference. With time even you will probably forget you ever posted that and there'll be no record it ever happened. Maybe if you're more of an essay blogger with minimal linking, you've got more chance of being able to recycle the essay into something a print magazine can use. Otherwise, it seems to me that there's nothing immortal about a blog unless you actually save individual posts and print them up on paper. And, of course, doing that would be to defeat the point of the weblog entirely...

posted by James Russell | 5:27 PM

what the critics have said