Back in March of 2006, I interviewed Alan Cote, the Supervisor of Public Records in the Public Records Division of the Massachusetts Secretary's office. Alan had testified back in October of 2005 in the hearing where Peter Quinn had been called on the carpet by Senator Marc Pacheco, the Chair of the Senate Committee on Post Audit and Oversight. At the Pacheco hearing, Alan had professed neutrality about ODF, but also doubts that document formats could provide a useful tool for document preservation.
What struck me most forcefully at both the hearing as well as the interview was that Alan presumably should have been one of the biggest proponents of open formats, rather than a doubting Thomas. Why? Because the process he now follows to preserve electronic documents seems almost comically cumbersome and tedious. Briefly summarized, it involves recopying every single electronic document every five years or so onto new media (electronic media degrade surprisingly rapidly) in multiple formats (because formats are regularly abandoned). Shouldn't someone stuck with such a chore be desperate to find a better way?
Apparently, preserving documents is child's play compared to preserving modern movies, especially those created initially in digital form. How bad - and expensive - is that? According to a 74 page study released by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAD) to a limited audience in early November, preserving a full-length digital movie can cost $208,569 (dramatic pause) per year. The reasons are exactly the same as for digitized documents, and the currently available means of preservation are the same as well. The amount of data involved, however, is vastly greater - and no commitment to remain faithful to a single standard (yet) exists to ensure that future technologies will be able to display movies created using today's techniques.
The name of the report is aptly called "The Digital Dilemma." An article based on the report appeared in early November in The Hollywood Reporter, and a longer article is in this morning’s New York Times.
The issue is of greater urgency, perhaps, to the film industry than document preservation has been to most commercial interests, because much of the ultimate profit in video properties is reaped downstream in time. And according to the report, the risk of "digital extinction" can arise for a given property in as little as 18 months. The hazards of digital storage are summarized by the Times article as follows:
To begin with, the hardware and storage media — magnetic tapes, disks, whatever — on which a film is encoded are much less enduring than good old film. If not operated occasionally, a hard drive will freeze up in as little as two years. Similarly, DVDs tend to degrade: according to the report, only half of a collection of disks can be expected to last for 15 years, not a reassuring prospect to those who think about centuries. Digital audiotape, it was discovered, tends to hit a “brick wall” when it degrades. While conventional tape becomes scratchy, the digital variety becomes unreadable.
In contrast, the traditional process for archiving video is reliable and inexpensive – a methodology developed after learning the economic lesson of carelessness the hard way. That happened when the ability to deliver dozens of channels via cable television created a demand for old video that in most cases turned out to be either lost, destroyed, or degraded beyond use.
Now the same danger has arisen again, and AMPAS has gotten on top of the issue if not in advance of the problem, at least more quickly than occurred in the days of unstable celluloid film. Milt Shefter, the project leader on the AMPAS Science and Technology Council’s digital motion picture archival project, is quoted in The Hollywood Reporter article as follows:
"We are already heading down this digital road … and there is no long-term guaranteed access to what is being created. We need to understand what the consequences are and start planning now while we still have an analog backup system available." … Shefter noted that a requirement for any preservation system is that it must meet or exceed the performance characteristic benefits of the current analog photochemical film system. According to the report, these benefits include a worldwide standard; guaranteed long-terms [sic] access (100-year minimum) with no loss in quality; the ability to create duplicate masters to fulfill future (and unknown) distribution needs and opportunities; and immunity from escalating financial investment.
Today, 100 years of storage of a film master of a movie in a salt mine would cost about $105,900, in today’s dollars, while the digital master could cost as much as (where’s that dramatic pause again?) $20,856,900. Assuming you could find a movie worth spending that on.
If this sounds familiar and worrisome, it should. We are rushing pell mell into a future where we only focus on the exciting benefits of new technologies without considering the qualities of older technologies that are equally important – such as preservation – that may be lost or fatally compromised by migrating to a new whiz-bang technology. I wrote about this some time back in an article that I would recommend reading to make this phenomenon more real, called Clay Tablets, iPods and Evo/Devolution.
The moral of the story is that we should look before we leap, and not transition from one technology to another until we have figured out how to hang on to what we’ve got.
For further blog entries on Standards and Society, click here