net.wars: The Undead

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 30 August 2002

Two important things have happened to Wendy in the last few weeks: she got a MUCH faster computer with six times the disk space, and the Rabbit died. No, not that kind of rabbit. Not even that kind of Rabbit ...

Wendy M Grossman

The Rabbit is an 11-year-old "VCR multipler" with a transmitter on top of the VCR in the living room, a receiver on top of the TV in the office, and a length of very, very thin wires between them. ("It defies physics," said one technician.) It sends back remote control commands from the office to a TV/video system that is now so complex (satellite box, cable box, TiVo, VCR ... ) that I have to draw myself a diagram before I dare change anything. One day, all the transmitter sent me was snow. It wouldn't take my remote calls any more. A friend is trying to fix it, and although Google searches failed to reveal a current source, someone on CIX thinks he has a spare in his attic ...

Now, I know you're going to say, "Oh, ferchrissake, get a wireless video sender." Which is all anyone sells now. I've been trying one out while the Rabbit is incapacitated. Friends, it works perfectly except for one thing: it deeply resents the 802.11b competing for 2.4GHz. It also gets jealous when I use the microwave oven. This is a reasonably common problem . So I want wires. Which are supposed to be dying. You see?

The new computer means it is suddenly practical and desirable to make a real run at digitizing some of these here "dead" media I've got lying around: something like 800 video tapes, a thousand or so vinyl LPs, several boxes of audio cassettes, and a box of reel-to-reel tapes. (What are those, I hear you cry, like the 23-year-old VAT inspector who couldn't imagine what that weird machine on the shelf was.) Space really isn't the motivator that it could be: you will prise my LP collection out of my possession when you remove them from behind my cold, dead body swearing blind you will give them to a dedicated collector or library. All the audio/visual media put together aren't even close to the size of the book collection - and you aren't getting any of those out of here either. But video and audio cassettes ... I've always seen as temporary media. Recordable, portable, fragile.

So I thought since the new machine is capable of running a video recording card, I'd cull video tapes by digitizing just the bits I want to keep (we're talking acres of old sitcoms and tennis matches here), and I could MP3ify the audio cassettes and vinyl. Different reasons: I want space in the video section; I want easier listening access for the audio section.

The audio pro Mike Rivers, however, whom I briefly consulted about rescuing a near-dead cassette, begs me not to throw out irreplaceable tapes. His thinking: if you have some idea what a physical medium is you can figure out how to build a machine to read it. Audio cassettes, he says, will not disappear in my lifetime. MP3 may be this year's eight-track tape. Even WAVifying them into CDs ... well, we know 50-year-old audio cassettes are playable. The oldest CDs are still only about 20 years old. These are concert tapes from the late 1970s when I was a full-time musician, recorded bits of other musicians at folk clubs, and so on.

The digerati tend to assume that with the grand sweep of digital media nothing need ever go out of print. This ought to be especially true as media companies become more and more desperate to milk every last cent they can out of their archives. But we digitize first what is easiest and what we currently value most, and run out of time or money long before the entire archive gets done.

One of the great shocks they don't warn you about when you hit your 40s is that books that everyone read when you were a child disappear.

Karen, for example, or The Nun's Story, both bestsellers when I was a teenager ... out of print. They can't be digitized by the Gutenberg Project , they're too recent: still in copyright. (Though you can get a DVD of the movie of The Nun's Story, which starred Audrey Hepburn.) What's forgotten in the copyright wars is the vast tracts of niche non-commercial material: there must be a few dozen folkies who would love to hear the tape I just mp3ified of performers from Howard Glasser's 1978 Eisteddfod festival.

It was less a surprise to me that music is subject to sudden vanishment. My record collection started in 1971 with selections from the remainder bin because, with the end of the folk boom, it was full of 69-cent cutouts of the old Newport Folk Festival albums, the Weavers, all kinds of wonderful folk records that are probably better regarded now than they were back then. Perhaps someday the same will happen to wires and audio cassettes. Meantime, excuse me while I go rescue the contents of a near-defunct single-density floppy disk with an ancient copy of Norton. Like, so 1993.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).