The Scribbler

30 January 2006

In search of the final format

Filed under: books,music,video — The Scribbler @ 18:36

Now I may be showing my age, but I have a couple of much-loved albums on the following formats: vinyl, cassette, CD, minidisc, WMA and MP3 ( i'll leave you guessing which albums and artists!). The fact that I no longer have a record player, and the only tape deck available in my household is in my car, makes me wonder if there is truly a format for storing, music, video or any other data that will beat obsolescence.

When my four-year-old nephew found a cassette, he asked, "What's this?" On being told it was something that had music on it, his response was "Don't be silly!". For him music has always arrived on something round and shiny, or via a box with headphones attached. I often wonder what the future will be like for someone like him, someone who has never known a world without CDs, remote controls, mobile phones and the internet.

That's why I was interested in this article about turning old music into digital formats. Apart from rescuing my music collection, I also want to archive my own recordings I made as a radio journalist. At the moment, they're on cassette and minidisc, and I can rapidly see the day approaching when I can play neither. I'm already wondering how I can get a lead from the car to the PC to re-format those cassettes, or whether I could do it with a wi-fi connection.

And it's not just music that's in danger of being lost to the advances of technology. By the time our family finally rented a video recorder, the first format war of VHS v Betamax had been won. But I'm already a victim of the follow up conflict, with shelves full of videos which I can no longer watch. And if I did want to get hold of a VCR to transfer something what would I transfer it onto, DVD, CDR? Who is to say how long they will last in the wake of hard disc recorders and digital downloads?

Having done a bit of geneology research, I know it's something that concerns historians with far more precious documents and recordings to preserve than my own. And digital technology has done much to enable people to search and view historical documents online. But still I ask, what will last?

I've just finished a book called Darwin and the Barnacle by Rebecca Stott, in which the author traces Darwin's life up to the publication of "On the Origin of the Species". For me, the most touching episode occurs in the epigraph, when she visits the Cambridge Zoology museum. There she not only sees the preserved octopus gathered by Darwin during his voyage onboard the Beagle in 1832, but also views microscopic slides prepared by his own hand. But while many of the slide specimens are now damaged, the irony is that, his handwriting, the simplest of recordings of ink on paper, can still be seen.

Maybe those aboriginal rock artists had the right idea all along… 


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