Transient words and the Cosmic Calendar

Today I was interviewed over the phone by a Medill grad student (Medill is the journalism school at Northwestern University where I teach).  I got the following email from him:

My name is xxxxx and I am a graduate student over at Medill. I’ve been assigned to do a short Question-and-answer article on a Northwestern professor of my choosing. I would like to interview you for the project.

We spoke for about 10 – 12 minutes.  He asked some nice questions, mainly along the lines of “what got you interested in science documentaries?”  “What is the audience for your films?”  (if only he knew how often and how long we’ve had to struggle to answer that question).  At the end he asked “is there anything else you’d like to ask or add?”  I told him I did have one question: “what is this for?”  It was simply a class assignment.  Not for an article, not for the newspaper or his thesis.  Just something to hand in.  I wanted to ask “why did you pick me?”  but I didn’t — not sure I wanted to know.

I was interviewed a couple of weeks ago by an undergraduate for the campus newspaper about 3D filmmaking.  I told the student I know next to nothing about 3D filmmaking technology, but she soldiered on, undaunted.  Turns out I was able to talk about it for a few minutes.  I assume the article appeared in the paper, but I didn’t check, and I didn’t get a copy.

We’re updating our website over at 137 Films.  Monica (my co-director) has provided one of our old interviews from The Atom Smashers from Seed Magazine.  I had forgotten about this one.  I don’t have a hard copy of the magazine, and as far as I know, none of us does.

All of this got me to thinking.  I’m spewing words around, some solicited, others (like this blog) unsolicited and just launched into the ether.  What happens to all of this?  One day (maybe soon) the link to that Seed article is going to go dead (that nice little quote I stole from Emily Dickinson will be gone forever).  I’m sure there are no existing copies of my interview for the 3D article that appeared in the campus newspaper.  And who knows what’s going to happen to that question-and-answer assignment after the grad student turns it in.  And heck, someday the servers that power WordPress will go dead, and these words you’re reading will flicker out of existence forever.

Who cares?  I’m not sure if even I do.  I’ve been watching Cosmos, though (that beautiful Carl Sagan science show from 1980), with a couple of my friends (don’t worry, a whole blog entry on that TV party is coming up next) and the notion of transience and irrelevance becomes comically evident, especially in one scene in the first episode.  I’ll set the scene for you.

Carl Sagan has laid out the entire universe’s existence on a year-long calendar.  The Big Bang happened at in the first second of New Year’s day.  The Milky Way forms in May, the sun and planets form in August.  The dinosaurs were wiped out by a comet on December 29.  And then you see a little white square on the last day of the year, December 31.  Sagan tells us that everything we’ve ever done — every human being that’s ever lived — fits into that little square: the last 10 seconds of the last day of the entire year.  That certainly puts things into perspective — It’s hard to worry about where your words go when that kind of timeline is hovering at the back of your mind.

But sometimes I do worry about it.  I was teaching High-Definition Cinematography a few weeks ago and put this question to my class: why would anyone shoot on film?  (It was a bit of a rhetorical question, as I had just shown them a shrill propaganda piece made by Kodak declaring you should never shoot on video, and in the previous quarter I had taught almost all of them 16mm cinematography.  Most of them were film-o-philes).  We had a pretty spirited discussion about the pros and cons of each medium, and despite their aesthetic preference for film the two were in a dead heat due to the practicalities and the expense of video.  Then one guy said “digital is more stable than film.”

I know what he meant: that film is fragile, it can break, you have to load it correctly, it can jam up in the camera, the chemistry can go wrong, you can accidentally expose it to light, scratch it, tear it, it can get too hot (and in the old days, it could spontaneously explode).  However, I had to call him out on it.

“How many of you have had a hard drive crash in the last 6 months?”  Half the class (including me) raised their hands.  They’re too young to have this experience, but I have about three flavors of hard drive that I can no longer use (SCSI and SCSI 2 being two examples).  I could also go down the list of other storage media that have come and gone in the last 10-15 years: Syquest discs, Zip discs, Optical discs, 3.5 inch floppies, 5-inch floppies.  The media on them might be perfectly good, but you can’t even access it anymore.  “What do you think the chances are,” I asked them, “that in 10 years any hard drive you’re currently using will even be recognized by a computer, if it works at all?  What about in 50 years?  A hundred?”

I was on a roll.  “What about after an apocalypse?  Let’s say civilization has gone down.  There’s no electricity, let alone functioning computers.  What about all the information, the videos, on those hard drives?  Completely incomprehensible.  Lost forever.

“But film … modern film can last for decades, even centuries.  Black and white film, especially, can last for ages.  AND … you don’t need to encode or decode it.  Some neo-primitive man will pick up a hard drive and use it like a hammer until it breaks, but he can pick up a roll of film, unspool it, and point it at the sun and say ‘huh. Looks like a girl, walking in a forest, with a white dress.  And there’s a guy behind the tree.  And then he jumps out… and then…'”

They got the idea.  I put my sledgehammer back in my toolkit.

We’re so used to transience that we don’t even consider how to make things permanent anymore.  I should be making film copies of all my films.  I should print out all my writing on acid free paper and store it somewhere.  But I don’t.  Until this generation, or maybe one before it, creative people thought about permanence.  Now most don’t even think beyond the next five years.

I’ve always thought that one thousand years from now there will be a huge gap in the way future historians understand our times.  At about 1980 evidence of our existence will begin to fade away, and by 2005 or so there will be virtually nothing left of us.  No one takes physical photographs anymore.  Films are dwindling, replaced by video on unstable media.  Writing is done electronically and rarely printed out.

I know this sounds trite, and cliche, but this does make me stop and think:  our trash is far, far more long-lasting than our treasures.  Every time I buy a coffee somewhere and grab a plastic stirring stick, stir my coffee, and throw it away, I think this thought:  Total time of use for that plastic stirring stick: about 4 seconds.  Total time of existence: several thousand years.  That’s an insane proportion.

I do think about this from time to time, but then I stop thinking about it.  I’m typing this on a computer, after all, and it’s going to some website in the sky.

That’s about as transient as you can get.

~ by claytonbrown2 on February 1, 2010.

2 Responses to “Transient words and the Cosmic Calendar”

  1. Print your stuff out. I’ve started doing more of it. It will be worth it’s weight in gold someday to your family and friends, especially if you leave descendents.

    A few years ago I found a stack of about a hundred letters that my father (20 years dead) had written to my grandmother while he was in the army during WWII. Nothing profound, just day to day stuff, the sort of thing that almost everybody would have long since thrown away. They were fascinating to me. I wish I had a copy of every letter that my family ever wrote.

    I believe that we will experience some sort of grid down emergency during our lifetimes and it will wipe the slate clean on most of our lives. There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth. (Sorry, I just have to use that old saw from time to time.)

  2. Tickmeister is right. Keep it on paper. Many genealogists with whom I associate wrongly believe that computer files are the best way to store important historical information. Our genealogy society has already become dismayed over some documents that are lost because they are on those big old floppy disks and no one can find a way to read them. Eyeballs on paper never become obsolete.

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