Lamenting The Digital Legacy

Last semester I taught a class. This semester, I have embarked again on the journey that is “writing a book”. I have picked back up, the project I started in 2004, which was a remix of my thesis project from graduate school—a book version with narrative and history about Dr. Robert L. Leslie and the Composing Room which published PM and AD Magazines. All aspects of this subject are important influences and drivers in the emergence of modernist graphic design in this country.

But this post isn’t about the book per se.

This post is about the discovery and the revelation of the lie we have all been promised with the digital age and how things would be safe forever from rot, from fire, from decay.

When I worked on my thesis project, I did the final thesis as an interactive piece in Hypercard. A piece of software that isn’t runnable on any modern system 20+ years later. The discs with my thesis are just pieces of plastic to add to the landfill.

I digitized video from a VHS tape, which I am having digitized again because I can’t open the original Premiere 5.1 files on any of the 5 modern apple machines that I currently own. I still have an old 8600 packed away somewhere that I kept just in case—but I have no idea how to go forward from an old format in a piece of software that is still being made but doesn’t open old versions.

I am having that VHS tape and the cassette tapes professionally digitized now, because I don’t own a VHS player anymore and I am afraid the tape is so old it might break in a consumer player. I hope the tape doesn’t disappear along the way. Once I get those digitized files, I am not sure what to do with the discs or how long they will last.

My text files from grad school are just bits on a CD. A CD which I can’t actually open on 4 out of the 5 machines because no one makes computers with CD’s anymore. I had to go out and buy a portable CD drive just to see what was on these discs. I had to go buy a portable cassette player to hear the audio tapes that I had made when I interviewed the designer Hans Barschel as part of my thesis work. The text files I made of notes and designer biographies and other related aspects of the project were made in long defunct programs like MacWrite and Quark Express.

My writing work from my initial book efforts 10 years ago were all done in Microsoft word and I can happily say that those files opened seamlessly and were effortlessly updated to the newer version. I never thought I would say this but Yay! Microsoft.

As I have been working on the research for this project, I am thankful for the analog world of the time. I have found magazine articles, books, photographs, letters and all sorts of ephemera including the full run of the magazines, lovingly saved in archives around the country. They aren’t reliant on changing technology to view and are accessible if you can get there in person—although more and more of these libraries are digitizing their collections—which I worry about. My photocopies of articles I made 20 years ago are more accessible than the original writing work I made at the time.

I am simultaneously distraught at the loss and resigned to just letting it go.

I am saddened that our children and theirs won’t have access to the riches of photographic memories and textual artifacts like we have from our ancestors because of the effervescent quality and short shelf life of the digital “revolution” and the need for ever-changing, always improving software and platforms which ultimately render the things we save into pixie dust.

current: partner, tangible user experience :: a full-service user experience design consulting firm. former Yahoo! founder of the public and internal Yahoo! pattern library. dse. design director of ued teams responsible for designing solutions across key yahoo! platforms: social media, personalization, membership and vertical search.