Digital Philosophy

Chaos in Print

“Come on, people!” the project manager says. “We have to get all these old records onto computers!” It is a push that dominates offices around the world. Whole staffs are hired with the sole purpose of being hunched over a computer, entering in data, so it will be preserved forever within the computer. “Think of the ease!” the managers tell us. “In 20 years, we’ll be able to pull up any record we want, just with the click of a button! Thanks to this, the miracle of data storage, the 5¼” floppy disc!”

The time was the early 1980s. That was the first big push to start getting office records on computers. But here we are now, 25 years later, and we’ve run into a snag. Those digital storage media that we diligently put all those records on 25 years ago are no longer compatible with our modern computers. All those diskettes now fill boxes and boxes in storage rooms across the country, with the data on them no longer accessible. It’s actually starting to become a problem in many businesses. Yeah, all the records are on computers, but those old computers don’t work with the new computers. And, what was hoped would be avoided has happened: the information has become lost to the ages.

We’ve been told that we now live in a digital age. Everything is getting computerized in one way or another. Records gave way to CDs. CDs gave way to a newer digital technology: MP3s. The VCR gave way to the DVD. Pictures are giving way to JPGs. Radio and television now boast much higher quality picture and sound, thanks to the broadcast of 1’s and 0’s, instead of relying on the modulation of frequencies or amplitudes of electromagnetic waves. It’s also been called the information age, as this new digital way of sharing information has made things quicker and easier than before.

But along with this, I find that information also becomes more and more disposable than before. What was once kept for fear that the peasants would revolt, is now tossed away like a half-eaten Big Mac. I was thinking about this recently as the family business recently bought a digital camera.

We take a lot of pictures in our business. We travel to a lot of remote oil leases, and naturally the head office in Calgary wants to see what we saw. The cost of developing at least two rolls of film at the end of every day, and then paying the extra dollar to get the pictures burned to CD so they could be e-mailed off was getting astronomical. A digital camera made perfect economic sense. Plus, it’s just a really neat toy to play with in your downtime.

I’ve spent a lot of my free time in the past couple of days playing with the digital camera. Running around the house, snapping picture after picture, and immediately deleting it if there was something about it I didn’t like. I reached a catharsis the other night, when I took the digital camera out to a restaurant. I ordered the special, which came with a bowl of clam chowder. Without giving it a second thought, I took a picture of my clam chowder. As I stared at my soup, and as I stared at my picture of the soup, I was hit with the contradiction of this digital age.

Whenever I was on vacation, and I had my old 35mm camera with me, I was always plagued with constant decisions with my taking a picture. “How many exposures do I have left? Do have any extra film with me?” I’d go through this drawn-out process of deciding whether the picture was actually photo-worthy. 3 rolls of film in reserve, 24 exposures per roll…everything was so finite. But now, with digital photography, I can fit 250 (or more) pictures on a little tiny chip. Those questions are no longer an issue. I see something I want to take a picture of, I just point and click. And, if it’s something I have regrets about taking a picture of, I just hit delete.

And it’s that last part that gives me pause. Not only is it far too easy to take a picture now, it’s also far too easy to delete a picture. Just point and click, and the visual record is gone forever. In the past, we’d have boxes and boxes in our closets full of pictures, snapshots, negatives, and, in more recent years, CD-ROMs. A picture would never go away. It would always be there. There was a certain reassurance to that permanence. But now, with everything going digital, just point and click, and it’s erased from existence.

The decisions I used to make in taking a picture are still there, only now they’ve shifted to further down the line. Now, instead of asking if I want this image forever before I take the picture, I ask it after I take the picture. Do I save or delete? Do I go that extra step and print it out, for an album or to hang on my wall? If we need to free up some room on our chips, then we just dump all the pictures onto our computer. The shoebox has been moved from the closet to the hard drive. But still, it’s far easier to eliminate a folder on your hard drive labelled “vacation pics” than it is to throw out a shoebox with the same label.

Maybe it’s just my personal bias. I am a packrat, and the disposal of anything, even information, is not something I take for granted. Hell, I’ve still got all my notes from university boxed up and sitting in my closet. That’s probably why I’ve saved that picture of the bowl of soup.

Maybe digital technology isn’t the boon we all thought it would be. It’s made both the saving and the disposal of information far easier than anyone thought. But I should take solace in the fact that information can never be truly lost. There will be someone like me who’ll take it out of the computer and put it down in a book. There are those out there who will print out a picture and hang it on the wall. And yes, there will even be boxes and boxes of 5¼” floppy discs filling a closet.

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