Thursday, April 30, 2009

Digital media: pretty as a picture... but it sucks!

I’m a collector by instinct and an archivist by nature, so when I record something, I’m definitely thinking of keeping it for posterity. Thus I’ve got a collection of a few thousand VHS tapes that contain rare material, from interviews I’ve done for the Funhouse cable program, to movies I taped off broadcast TV or cable that have fallen into the “abyss” that consumes all titles that don’t get a prestige DVD release, to talk show appearances, musical performances and music vids, and special moments from the cornucopia of strangeness that was NYC public acess.

The reason I bring this is up is that pretty much all of my VHS tapes are still playable. Yes, the picture fades as the years go by, IF the recording was done at EP/SLP speed (the stuff done at SP looks damned fine, even two decades on) or IF the VCR it was recorded on was a dud. Tapes from the Nineties still play, tapes from the Eighties still play, and even items from the dim, dark Seventies will play, although they are startin’ to wear. On the other hand, mini-DV, the standard on which I've been recording the show for the past four years or so, a medium that has gorgeous visual quality that far surpasses VHS, has a very definite shelf life. I found this out last year when I reran shows made exactly one year before, in 2007. Some of the tapes (all the same brand, all bought brand new from a reputable retailer) dropped sound, while one or two had already started to have that boxy digitization that makes digital matter unwatchable. I also have a show done in 2002 on mini-DV that simply doesn’t play. I’ve been informed by a tech-knowledgeable friend that this could be due to a humidity situation, and that colder storage could restore the tape to playability. Perhaps that is indeed the case, but I’m wary of attempting to freeze the tapes and possibly getting moisture into a tiny bit ’o plastic with tape inside it — plus, damn, did VHS tapes ever need such ridiculously ginger handling and climate-conscious storage? (If you’ve ever lived in a big-city apartment, you know it can get humid inside, but not truly tropical-humid!).

So let’s just throw out some statistics: We were told VHS tapes would have a 15-year lifespan, and they’re still playin’ some two to three decades on. Mini-DV palm-sized little slabs of plastic start to weird out within one year, and seem to go completely wonky after five years. I have no idea how long the material on DVD-rs will last — the timespan quoted to me was 20-30 years (quite a step down from vinyl records which, barring excessive heat or a nasty needle, last forever). Of course, if you take into account how feebly the things are manufactured, and that using a Sharpie to mark them can cut down their playback ability appreciably, I think you get the picture: analog was accused of being temporal, but was made to last. Digital looks abso-fuckin’-lutely gorgeous, and yet our collections of films, TV shows, and clips could be useless in anywhere from a year to five years to two decades. Planned obsolescence at its most insidious. A vigilant archivist would have to re-dub his or her collection each and every five years just to be safe in this ridiculous, pretty-lookin’ digital era. How’s that for improving things?

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