Re: 'media archaeology'

Scott deLahunta (
Mon, 04 May 1998 08:59:56 +0200

One more for the grab-bag on history and media, etc. There is a fantastic
site on at The site promotes "the study of
media history from petroglyphs to pixels" and includes a timeline and the
'Dead Media Project' archives.

The following is a recent post to the Dead Media list. For anyone under the
impression that migrating dance documentation from video to cdrom will help
preserve them for posterity -- look out...



From: (Steven Black)

Source: Business Week magazine, April 20, 1998


"Surprise == computerized data can decay before you know

By Marcia Stepanek in New York

"Up to 20% of the information carefully collected on Jet
Propulsion Laboratory computers during NASA's 1976 Viking
mission to Mars has been lost. Some POW and MIA records
and casualty counts from the Vietnam War, stored on
Defense Dept. computers, can no longer be read. And at
Pennsylvania State University, all but 14 of some 3,000
computer files containing student records and school
history are no longer accessible because of missing or
outmoded software.


"The Information Age is creating a digital dilemma.
For years, computer scientists told us that digital 1s and
0s could last forever. But now, we're discovering that the
media we're using to carry our precious information on
into the future are turning out to be far from eternal ==
so fragile, in fact, that some might not last through the
decade. More is at risk than government and corporate
records. The danger extends to cultural legacies: new
music, early drafts of literature, and academic works
originate in digital form == without hard copies.


"'Digital information lasts forever, or five years ==
whichever comes first,' says Jeff Rothenberg, senior
computer scientist at RAND Corp.

"Forget forever. Under less-than-optimal storage
conditions, digital tapes and disks, including CD-ROMs and
optical drives, might deteriorate about as fast as
newsprint == in 5 to 10 years. Tests by the National Media
Lab, a St. Paul (Minn.)-based government and industry
consortium, show that tapes might preserve data for a
decade, depending on storage conditions. Disks == whether
CD-ROMs used for games or the type used by some companies
to store pension plans == may become unreadable in five

"For consumers, the biggest worry is CD-ROMs. Unlike
paper records, CD-ROMs often don't show decay until it's
too late. Experts are just beginning to realize that stray
magnetic fields, oxidation, humidity, and material decay
can quickly erase the information stored on them.

"Says Robert Stein, founder of New York-based Voyager
Co., which makes commercial CD-ROM books and games: 'CDs
have a tendency to degrade much faster than anybody, at
least in the companies that make them, is willing to
predict.' Stein doesn't expect the CD-ROMs Voyager sells
to last more than 5 or 10 years, and neither, he says,
should customers.

"There's another problem: the unrelenting pace of
technology. Chances are good that the software needed to
get at much of today's data might not be readily available
in 10 years. Anyone who has tried wrestling information
from a 5 1/4-inch floppy disk knows that. Just ask
scientists conducting rain forest research. Satellite
photos of the Amazon Basin taken in the 1970s == data
critical to establishing deforestation trends == are
trapped on indecipherable magnetic tapes no longer on the

"But even keeping a step ahead of data decay and
software obsolescence is no guarantee of escaping the
problem. Companies spending heavily on sophisticated new
computers and software to beat the technology reaper say
they're beginning to run into a whole new problem. All too
often, when they transfer information from one aging media
or computer system to a newer one, not all bits make the

"Sometimes, just a footnote or spreadsheet is lost.
Other times, whole categories of data evaporate. Says
Rothenberg: 'It's like playing the child's game of
Telephone. It doesn't take many translations from one
media to another before you have lost significant aspects
of the original data.'

"The Food & Drug Administration reports that some
pharmaceutical companies are discovering errors as they
copy drug-testing data that back up claims of long-term
product safety and effectiveness. In several recent cases
involving data transfers from Unix computers to systems
running Microsoft's Windows NT operating system, blood-
pressure numbers were randomly off by up to eight digits
from those in original records, FDA and company data
specialists report.

"Sophisticated software can catch most of the errors,
but 'not all the time,' says Rone Lewis, vice-president of
business development of Surety Technologies, a data
recovery and migration firm.

"Some companies fear the problem could expose them to
lawsuits. 'In our litigation-prone age, it's harder to
defend yourself if you're losing parts of your records
when you migrate them,' says Henry Perritt, dean
of Chicago Kent College of Law.


"Ray Paddock, a director for Storage Technology Corp.,
says the problem is so bad for some of his clients that
they're creating new databases just to decipher the data
they have on tape and disks. Others, he says, are simply
keeping the old version of the software used to create

"NO STANDARDS. Meanwhile, the government is looking
into establishing durability standards for digital media.
A task force == including representatives of Eastman
Kodak, IBM, and archivists at leading museums and
universities == has agreed on a digital longevity test
ultimately aimed at increasing the life span of CD-ROMs
and other types of digital media. The only problem: So
far, no manufacturer has tested its products using the
age-test created by the task force. And the group is still
working on a standard for magnetic tape.

"Others are at work on new technologies to solve the
problem. NORSAM Technologies in Los Alamos, N.M., for
example, is promoting its HD-Rosetta project, which
permanently stores historical documents == but only if
they are converted from digital back to analog recording

"But at least one remedy being offered by researchers
sounds a lot more like the distant past than the future:
Cobblestone Software Inc. in Lexington, Mass., is
promoting PaperDisk, which uses paper to print out complex
patterns of dots and dashes representing digitized files.
Cobblestone President Tom Antognini claims it should last
for centuries == or about as long as old-fashioned, high-
quality paper."

[[ find full article at Business Weeks' online archive: ]]

Scott deLahunta and Susan Rethorst
Writing Research Associates, NL
Sarphatipark 26-3, 1072 PB Amsterdam, NL
tel: +31 (0)20 662 1736
fax: +31 (0)20 470 1558