Welcome to the Digital Era

We’ve come a long way, baby. Since the middle of the last century with the birth of the first mainframes in government labs, our world has been changing to an increasingly digital one. Our utilities are now ‘smart grids’, all of our intersections and drivers are equipped with digital cameras at all times, and a larger share of our lives are being spent on the Internet, which we love very much. This has been the goal all along, though, hasn’t it? We all want to instantaneously communicate with others near or far. It drove the Romans to build roads, Alexander Bell to invent the telephone, and continues to inspire products like email, social networking, and countless other things society appreciates by use.

Yet sadly, the road behind us is littered with all of yesterday’s favorite toys. So much of our heritage is still on physical media; aging tomes, decaying magnetic tapes, and dusty picture boxes. I can’t honestly say I am surprised anymore when another original copy of the Declaration of Independence shows up in another attic somewhere; the most recent copy was found in London in 2009. We always have been obsessed with meticulously cataloging the world around us. This basic desire to collect manifests itself in various ways; historical anecdotes like Darwin’s finches, television shows such as Storage Wars and Hoarders, and even your relatives’ stamps and bottle caps or your neighbor’s dozen cats. It is nothing to be ashamed of; in fact, many think having the most stuff means one is “winning”. It is all about how you draw the line in your appreciation.

For instance, when I was young, I had a shoe-box of mementos under my bed that I could pull out and reminisce with when homesick or downtrodden. Since then, the collection of stuff I had under my bed has grown to a logistical nightmare of nostalgia. The crates are stacked high, the cardboard groans and gives occasionally, and the dogs are afraid to run too fast in certain parts of the house. Without children, I don’t know how my shed, attic, garage, and myriad of closet space would sort itself out. Nowadays they brag about how everything they need or own fits neatly into a car; oh happy youth, a rolling stone with a student loan. However, I am here to tell you now that this needn’t go on any longer, my friends! Our boxes of old things will no longer go unloved and in the corner. Today, we talk about the tools available to digitize the remnants of our analog lives, and in the process we will take a moment to appreciate some of our old friends; specifically in the music recording industry since their history is an excellent example of how storage media develop over time.

In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, a device that could record and playback audio onto portable storage types. Mister Edison invented and marketed a wax-lined cylinder that would sit in the machine and rotate against the needle, producing sound for about two minutes. A few decades later, another American inventor named Emile Berliner would develop a 5” diameter circular disc that would rotate like a modern record which was intended for children. After securing the patents in several nations, Emile scaled up the duration and quality of the sound recorded. He would eventually collaborate with a machinist named Eldridge Johnson, building gramophones and 12” records boasting over four and a half minutes of sound recording. Edison adapted to match the new recording length, but the format war was already clinched; people demanded discs. The trend would continue until the invention of the Compact Disc and the Digital Video Disc.

The rest is history, the multitudes of journeyman musicians starved and the era of pop stars was born. Record companies managed the careers and productions of Elvis, the Beatles, and any band that wanted to be stamped into vinyl. Anyone that has ever heard a vinyl record knows the indescribable experience. The sound is interspersed with this gritty yet sophisticated popping that comes from imperfections in the cut grooves of the plastic. You could think of it as the audio equivalent of the ‘sepia tone’. The gramophone record made the music industry what it is today, and allowed our society to do what it loves; to collect albums and appreciate them. Popularity was associated with record sales, and the best bands went on tours to perform worldwide. The industry is today represented by the RIAA, the same organization that certifies record sales as gold or platinum designations in honor of the old media type. In 1977, NASA attached a gold-plated record containing ‘The Sounds of Earth’ to the Voyager spacecraft in the off chance aliens found them. One more fun fact: we just recently celebrated the Grammies, did you notice what the awards were shaped like?

By the 1960s, the nature of the game was changing yet again. The audience was clamoring for something different. Records just had so many drawbacks and weren’t very convenient to use; the records had to be manually swapped after every few songs. Furthermore, gramophones weren’t portable. You can’t carry one around town with you on your morning jog, or hold one up over your head while wearing a trench coat to show your sweetheart how much you care. The eight-track attempted to fill the void and did pretty well for a few years. They could fit in a tape deck or a car stereo, but they still weren’t what was needed. Enter the cassette tape. The cheap, portable, and familiar friend of music enthusiasts all over. It was small, sturdier, and produced sound of higher quality. You can toss a cassette down the street, but try that with a vinyl record. Each size of the tape could hold about an hour of mixed music and deejay shenanigans, resulting in a hobby that still persists to this day. Much like the format war of the past, the pocket-sized cassette competed with the eight-track tape and beat it out.

The record industry reeled from the effects of the cassette tape and home taping and re-taping of music broadcasted over the radio. By the 1980s, the British Phonographic Industry (Britain’s RIAA) had started an ad campaign declaring that “home taping [was] killing music (and it’s illegal).” Unsurprisingly, the plethora of punk bands across Britain and America all seized upon the opportunity for trolling. Many left halves of their tapes blank and printed instructions on the back or in the music for listeners to ‘do their part’ and tape music of their own. The statement has been both parodied and reinterpreted constantly since then for the VCR and movie industry, CD burning by computers, and even today with Internet piracy concerns. The constant fighting between the sides pretty much brings us back to the modern era. The stakes are control over distribution and recording privileges. The arguments are very complex and need to be settled with a combination of legal, commercial, and legislative action that preserves the freedoms of music lovers, while preventing criminals from undermining our legitimate recording industries.

Nowadays, conventional and satellite radio fill the airwaves, Internet radio streams music twenty-four-seven, and most songs ever recorded are available for download through on-line stores. Everyone has a media collection on their computers, and soon, when cloud computing becomes well-established, on the world wide web as well. We take advantage of these things and upgrade to the next gadget as it comes, hopefully granting us even more control over how we enjoy our media. But what to do with the boxes of old physical storage types? The records in the attic, the boombox in the garage, and so on.

Sadly these things have a lifetime. The shortest are the magnetic tapes of the various cassettes and homemade CDs and DVDs; they last only about thirty years due to the materials used to make them. So all of those rebellious mix-tapes of the early eighties are coming to the end of their run, if they haven’t already become unreadable. The good news is that your home movies on DVD and mix CDs from the ninties should be good until 2040 or so. Next come the factory pressed discs. When information is burned onto CDs and DVDs in ways that make them read-only, it also make them more permanent and lasting. These records can expect to last easily fifty years, and much longer if properly stored. Vinyl records last the longest, though. With careful handling and religiously storing discs in their sleeves, analog records can expect to last over a hundred years. That’s great news considering the first format war over the record was just over a hundred years ago.

There is hope! Tools have been built for this very purpose in mind. Hammacher Schlemmer sells an ‘LP and Cassette to CD Recorder’ ($400) capable of accepting 33, 45, and 78 rpm records, cassettes, CDs, and even AM/FM radio. Any of this can be burned directly to a CD or set as RCA output (red and white audio cables) to a stereo system. This is truly a powerful system that should be able to get all of the work done with the exception of those unloved eight-tracks. But don’t stop there, Creative, well known for soundcards and related hardware, offers an RCA to USB adapter ($65) if your computer doesn’t have that capacity already. Combine that with some impressive software called ‘Spin It Again’ ($35) from Acoustica that will automatically record the input from the reader, slice up the sound into individual tracks, filter out imperfections in the audio, and save the files as properly tagged mp3’s. The bundle will get the job done, yet in total shakes out to half a grand. Depending on your level of enthusiasm, this cost could be split between friends, family, and neighbors. Invite the whole block over to blast some old vinyl in Dolby 5.1 audio glory one more time! The technique is similar for digitizing VHS tapes. Buy a video card that can hook up to your VCR, connect computer to cassette, and use video capturing software to record the files in digital format. Documents and photos can be scanned using traditional USB scanners or, given a decent digital camera and some good sunlight, high quality digital photos can be effective ways to preserve these.

We are rapidly stepping into the future, and it is well understood that our data needs to be backed up in a lasting way. Computers have become widespread and capable of reading this information and directly copying the information to a local storage drive for instant play and sorting into playlists with other music, the iPod becomes a phenomenon up to that point unheard of, and we take advantage of this every day. But think of the potential we have here; imagine a complete collection of your family’s media, right back to the frowning immigrants in the ol’ black and white photos, backed up digitally and easily added to over time (provided we still use computers…). Yet, even hard drives fail, operating systems crash, and files sadly just become corrupt, and so we must take proactive steps to maintain our heritage through the ages. There is an easy way and a hard way, and I’d like to point out that they may be used together for a very secure system.

The easy way has already been mentioned; cloud computing. By delocalizing all of your important records and out-sourcing their preservation to a professional IT company, you can be sure that no matter what you drown your computers in for breakfast your data is secure. There are many options to choose from. Dropbox started in 2008 and now offers two gigabytes of data storage for free with upgrades for payments. Also, if you own an iOS 5 enabled device, then you get access to Apple’s iCloud service, which provides five gigabytes of storage free and then more based on a tier system after that. Amazon’s S3 service has been in the trade since 2006 and offers to host your data for fifteen cents a gigabyte per month, with the added benefit of being able to download your documents via the popular BitTorrent protocols to your computers. If you have a large volume of information, this may be the ideal storage method. Otherwise, it is easily doable for most to get by on storing you information in a seven gigabyte limit.

If you haven’t guessed, the hard way is the do-it-yourself method. Hard drives have a life expectancy that varies based on how actively used it is. On average, an actively used drive can last about five years. If you are someone who actively manages their computer hardware, new hard drives get installed more often than that. An easy option for anyone is to purchase an external hard drive. On-line vendors frequently have sales for these products. Currently, on newegg.com, $100 buys you a 1.5 TB drive by Seagate or a 1 TB drive by Western Digital, both of which are companies with good track records. Drives like these continue to function well out after ten years, giving you plenty of time to maintain the archive and transfer to a newer medium down the road. A more advanced option involves learning a little bit about how hard drives function; with both software and hardware aspects. Hard drives talk to the motherboard which also talk with the processor, RAM, and peripherals. Motherboards come equipped to handle several of them at once and can be made to have them work together in exquisite ways using what are known Redundant Array of Independent Disks (RAID). Using two identical drives, you can construct a RAID 1 configuration that creates two identical drives that can each run the system independently; should a drive fail, replace it and rebuild the array.

Complexities aside, the mission is not impossible and given a few weekends, your collection too could be digitized. From that point on it needs only be updated once a year with a new set of additions. Once digitized, take the time to label and sort everything out. Include notes so those who peruse the files down the road will understand who they are looking at. Remember, all of this is for posterity. Weren’t you glad they wrote the names down on those old photos. Like good oral hygiene, proper data maintenance is a constant battle and if we want to hand off a well preserved history to our children, we need to make sure it will stand the test of time. At the very least, imagine all of the fun that could be had bothering our children with home movies over YouTube.