As amazing as our current electronic technologies are – despite their strengths – are terribly, terribly ephemeral. The code that worked yesterday isn’t support today. The processors of – five years ago, ten years ago – are brought to their knees by the computational complexity and presumed processor capabilities of today’s software. The runtime environments required by the digital creations I manifested as a University student not only do not exist – computers of today don’t even recognize the file types.
Perhaps it’s good that my chances of becoming a world-renowned graphic designer are quite slim. For if they were higher, and exhibits celebrating my early digital work were to be held, recovering that early work would be a significant undertaking. Even today. Unlike like my drawings and pastels – for those seem to be holding up just fine. I looked at them just the other day. The same day I went through the box in my office containing 25 years worth of my sketchbooks. All the paper – just as I remembered it. All the sketches just as they were the last time I looked at them.
I didn’t need to convert them into a different file format or upgrade the software before I opened each sketchbook and revisited each page. I simply opened it. I simply turned the page. No need to for anything more. The paper persists.
One story at a time, I’m writing down the stories of my life. In a book. A high-quality, hardcover book. One story at a time, handwritten on paper in the book. A book I want to exist for a century and a half, if not longer. The book will go into the box with all the other family stories and photos – all of which are on paper. Stories and photos that – while they may not be on their original paper – are on paper.
Sure, I could type out these stories in typerighter.com just as I’m writing this. I enjoy writing in typerighter.com (I better, I built it for me, for long-form writing). But there’s no chance this typerighter.com will be around in more than a century. I even have a hard time envisioning it living beyond this next decade. Even if it does, that will mean countless technology migrations, not just server migrations, but also application layer and database migrations. All of these changes requiring regression tests – however humble.
Somewhere out on the internet there’s a story describing the problem of archiving electronic art. In it, the author describes the process. The process of picking the ideal computer for perpetually running the archived software, completely isolated from the rest of the internet. They described the need to prevent any of the bits of software from ever updating, from the intended application, all middleware, to the operating system, everything. All of which will ensure that this singularly valuable bit of software can continue to provide value for generations to come.
Unless those generations have something other than electrical service expected by the computer’s power supply.
Then – poof. It’s gone.
Last month, I brewed a batch beer. This particular recipe was originally used by a British brewery circa 1868. It was included in a book collecting a number of British and German beer recipes from 1850–1950. Theses recipes were extracted from the actual brewers logs of the time. Brewers logs that were written on paper in books and shared in-house to ensure a consistent product from batch to batch.
Am I using the same ingredients the Tetley Brewery did 147 years ago? Highly doubtful. Today’s grains, hops, and yeast are far more optimized for brewing than they were a century ago. But, since I have the beer’s characteristics; alcohol, bitterness, color, clarity, along with specified grain, hops, and yeast, I can get very close to recreating this beer. As can anyone else.
I don’t necessarily need their equipment or their process for creating fire. That’s all changed. I need the identifying, distinguishing characteristics. The same distinguishing characteristics that were originally written down 150 years ago on paper to help the next brewer on the shift.
This essay was originally published in Garrick van Buren’s weekly newsletter, Expand, and is posted here with his permission. While it is not always about the stuff we cover here it is always worth the time. Check it out.
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