Aris Silzars Display Technology Consulting

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But, What About 50 Years From Now?...January 2000

Imagine with me, for a few moments at least, that you are still young and will soon celebrate your tenth birthday. In this imaginary scenario, for the last several years, you have been living in a small town in Kansas -- maybe a bit like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. The time is in the early fifth decade of the last century. With the strong encouragement of your parents, you have been taking piano lessons for a few years and are showing some modest talent for this activity. Recently your mother has begun to have visions of you someday performing as a concert pianist.

In order to capture your promising musical accomplishments, your parents have made an appointment with the local studio, which also happens to be the one and only local radio station, for a recording session. You observe the grand piano sitting in the middle of an otherwise bare room, with ominous-looking egg-crate-like sound-absorbing material covering all the walls and ceiling. This recording studio is enough to intimidate most adults, let alone the typical ten-year old. A few practice runs through your prepared ten-minute program produces some decent passages but also plenty of wrong notes. The recording engineer informs you that the performance should be as mistake-free as possible because there will be only one opportunity to do the recording. You think to yourself, "that's easy for you to say," as your stress level and stage fright climb to new highs. All the while your mother is giving you words of encouragement but also contributing to the growing intensity of the experience by trying to reassure you how well you are going to do. "Sure Mom, but just what makes you think that?" are more words left unspoken.

Finally, you can't stall any longer, and the recording engineer tells you to prepare for his cue. He walks over to a piece of equipment that looks like an overgrown and very sturdy phonograph and places a new shiny black platter on it. The machine begins to spin the platter, an arm descends, the cue is given, and you begin to play. Meanwhile, the black platter continues its spinning and the "needle" generates a growing blob of a black string-like substance as the piano music is translated into tiny wiggly patterns in the spiral groove being cut into the black plastic. With great concentration, you make it through your program with only one small bobble. Your mother smiles and gives you a big hug. You have just participated in the marvel of creating your very own 78 rpm recording.

And yes, some 40 plus years later, I still have that recording and when properly encouraged will get it out for you and play it. That moment of my life has been captured and can be expected to be "archival" for many years yet to come.

While, in this nostalgic frame of mind, I took a look at our family's photo album, which by now contains photos representing all the decades the 20th century. The earliest photos were from a time when my parents were younger than I was during my traumatic piano recording experience. These early photos were of course monochromatic, but the images continue to be as perfect today as the day they were created. The large-format negatives that, like the photos, have survived wars, refugee trains, ocean journeys, and the harshest of storage conditions, also show no noticeable degradation. Over the years, I have printed duplicates from them with perfect results.

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As I scanned through these earlier decades of family history, I thought about all the events and challenges. These images were indeed powerful memory joggers. I was glad that my parents had taken the effort to carry these images with them through so many years.

I found my own initial photo-appearance in this album in the eventful fourth decade of the century. Most of these early photos were also monochromatic.

The first color photos appear in the 50s. And how unfortunate that is. The images have almost disappeared and what little remains is an ugly orange color. The introduction of color was highly touted as the next generation of photography, and was heavily promoted through advertising as the way to capture precious memories. However, the color film and paper makers didn't bother to let people know that their "memories" were only good for maybe a ten-year period before the images would virtually disappear. Those folks that stuck with the older Kodachrome slide-film process ended up with the longest-lasting results. But even today, none of the color imaging materials equals the archival qualities of monochrome films and papers.

During the last two decades, there has been somewhat more attention devoted to the archival capabilities of color films and print materials. Cibachrome papers were the first, to my knowledge, to produce archival images that could be expected to last more than 50 years under normal storage and display conditions. Some of the Fuji films and papers have also recently demonstrated good archival qualities. With care one can expect images made with these films and papers to degrade less than 10 percent over periods of about five decades. Thus, it may just be possible to show the images you made of your year-2000 New Year's eve celebration party at the one you will attend 100 years from now.

However, suppose you used a digital camera? What will you have to show and how will you show it? How about in a shorter time -- say 50 years from now?

We were recently visiting with our new son-in-law, who does web-site design for a living and is thoroughly steeped in the latest computer technology. He was showing us the pictures they had taken during their honeymoon. While the photos had been taken with conventional 35-mm film, each roll had been put onto a CD for convenient computer viewing. His off-hand comment was, "I wanted to get them put onto a CD so I never have to worry about them degrading." That seemed like a reasonable comment. There is no reported information, at least that I have seen, indicating that the materials from which CDs are made are going to disintegrate in ten or twenty years -- unlike some of the early movie films. However, what assurances do we have that the CD materials will last 50 or 100 years and that we, or our children, will have a way to view these images five or more decades from now? An actual photo or negative I can always examine. But what can I do with a CD if in the year 2049 there are no players that match the year 1999 standards?

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In the last two decades, we have gone from 5 1/4 inch disks, to 3 1/2 inch disks, to CD-ROM, and to various "memory sticks" that are used as semi-temporary storage for the newly emerging digital cameras. What will be the next generation of storage devices? It is clear that there will be a next generation because what we have today in insufficient for the 2-megapixel cameras that will be the mainstream image-capture devices during the first decade of this millennium. For example, a recent article comparing two of these cameras noted that in their highest-resolution mode the "memory stick" could hold only one image. This is clearly not a practical way to capture high-quality images. And if you put them onto a hard disk, zip-drive, or CD-ROM, will you have a way to access these media after another three or four decades of computer-technology evolution? Perhaps there is much money to be made creating businesses that do nothing but convert digital information stored in older formats into those storage media currently in vogue.

By the way, do you have any idea of the archival storage capabilities of the color ink-jet printer sitting next to your computer? Well, it's not quite as bad as some of the earliest color negative films and photographs, but it's not very good either. Current ink jet printers are most definitely not suited for the printing of archival images.

It seems that we have made considerably more progress in the last century meeting our needs for "instant gratification" than we have for meeting our needs for predictable long-term information retention. Apparently, the world of bits and atoms is not nearly as easy to distinguish as some well-known prognosticators would have us believe. Without the atoms, there is no place to put the bits. And once we associate the bits with atoms, they seem to want to wander off on us. The business of information retention will, I think, be a growing one. The more information we have and the more we need to access it, with whatever is the latest computer technology, the more there will be a need for updating storage methods and devices.

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Perhaps for those of us who cannot make a full-time occupation of updating our data bases, we can hope that the CD will be around for some time to come. It seems like the best hope. It is already the medium-of-choice for audio. It has quickly become the medium-of-choice for software programs and technical information. It is now becoming the medium-of-choice for video entertainment. It can be the near-ideal medium for photographs as soon as permanent write capability becomes inexpensive. Perhaps with this broad applications base, it will be the standard medium for some decades to come. For the sake of holding on to our most precious memories and even our personal data bases, it is imperative that we have an archival storage technology that will hold still for more than a few years.

Are we there yet? If not, when? Let me know what you think. You can reach me by e-mail at Email, by phone at 425-557-8850, by FAX at 425-557-8983 and by the always-memorable post office at 22513 SE 47th Place, Sammamish, WA 98075.