Thing that’s been on my mind lately: if you want your blog posts or your photographs to be around fifty years from now, you need to print them out. And the best format for that printout is a bound book. And if you care about your stuff being around after you die, you’ll print lots of copies and distribute them to anyone who might be persuaded to take one of them.

Sixty years ago, Harper Lee wrote Go Set a Watchmen and lost track of it, and this year the original manuscript was apparently found by someone rummaging through a box of old papers. Suppose she had written it on a computer, where is it now? Sitting on a punch tape or a giant magnetic platter, that’s where. Who cares if it is saved in plain text or WordStar 3.0 format; at that point it’s almost undiscoverable, and as good as gone. And sixty years from now our SSDs, USB drives, and even our M-Discs are going to be as difficult to use (and as busted) as that fridge-sized IBM Model 350 is now.

Keeping electronic files and photos around is like trying to keep a brain alive with tubes, wires and chemicals. You have to keep checking in on them, making sure they’re backed up, and migrating them to some stable combination of hardware and filesystem. Every few years. Maybe you have the patience to keep doing that for a decade, to keep writing the checks and putting in the Saturday afternoons. But someone has to keep up the effort or the day comes when you lose track of it, and at that point it’s basically kaput.

This is why I started my project of making a book-making machine. The goal of the project is to be able to take a snapshot of whatever I write or photograph, and magically turn that into a bound book. So that, should I someday no longer have the wherewithal to fiddle with computers and web servers, I can still have all those words and pictures on a shelf somewhere.

I could just print my stuff out on my laser printer, staple it together and call it a day. But a bound book is more compact, more durable and more useable than a sheaf of papers. We happen to live in a time when printing books is easy, fast and cheap. You can send a PDF to CreateSpace, order a single book for a few clams plus shipping, and it will show up on your doorstep a week later.1

So that’s what I’m working on, for fun, in my spare time. I’ll probably make a book of The Local Yarn, and a second one of transcripts of the Howell Creek Radio podcast. When I’m done, I’ll make the books available for anyone to purchase. I expect to sell perhaps three copies and end up with a couple of dimes in my pocket. The point isn’t to make money; it’s to ensure that whoever might want a permanent, offline copy of this stuff can get one — and that, if my house gets hit by a tornado, I can beg or buy a copy back from somebody.

  1. I just can’t get over the fact that this service exists. The ability to print a single bound book for the price of a hot dog is, as much as the internet itself, an economic result that is unique in the history of the world. I keep thinking that, as a society, we could be taking much better advantage of this capability than we do. Who knows how long it will last. 

I have thought this about my own writing as well, but I would add that a less ego-centric take I have also considered on this idea is future proofing what I read. The vast majority of what I read on the internet is not worth reading again (and plenty was not worth reading the first time), but a small percentage is really good—even worth reading again in ten years, or sharing with my children. I find some deep sadness, or irritation, in knowing that what I have read and valued is lost in the day I read it, slipping away in the water torrent of the internet never to be read by me and considered again.

I entertain the idea of copying out the very best of what I read on the internet, with proper attribution, and collecting it in volumes of reading in a nice book. It is a wonderful thing that we can so easily collect our own writing in book form, but isn’t it an even greater thing that we can so easily create books of awesome writing that we have found to share with others in our lives?

Rundy ·

Ben Fino-Radin, of the MoMA Department of Conservation, wrote about the complex measures needed to preserve digital art across 100-year time scales:

The packager addresses the most fundamental challenge in digital preservation: all digital files are encoded. They require special tools in order to be understood as anything more than a pile of bits and bytes. Just as a VHS tape is useless without a VCR, a digital video file is useless without some kind of software that understands how to interpret and play it, or tell you something about its contents. At least with a VHS tape you can hold it in your hand and say, “Hey, this looks like a VHS tape and it probably has an analog video signal recorded on it.” But there is essentially nothing about a QuickTime .MOV file that says, “Hello, I am a video file! You should use this sort of software to view me.” We rely on specially designed software—be it an operating system or something more specialized—to tell us these things. The problem is that these tools may not always be around, or may not always understand all formats the way they do today. This means that even if we manage to keep a perfect copy of a video file for 100 years, no one may be able to understand that it’s a video file, let alone what to do with it. To avoid this scenario, the “packager”—free, open-source software called Archivematica—analyzes all digital collections materials as they arrive, and records the results in an obsolescence-proof text format that is packaged and stored with the materials themselves. We call this an “archival information package.”

He also touches on the problem of verifying that no file corruption has taken place, and the giant robotic tape deck that will ultimately house and index 1.2 million gigabytes of digital art and associated metadata.

‘Ambitious’ and ‘technically impressive’ are the most favourable ways I can describe this arrangement. ‘Unsustainably complicated’ may also be applicable.

(via kottke)

Joel (Author) ·

Photo: backup of an ebook

Ebook backup by Jesse England (via Roberto Greco):

E-book backup is a physical, tangible, human readable copy of an electronically stored novel. The purchased contents of an e-book reader were easily photocopied and clip-bound to create a shelf-stable backup for the benefit of me, the book consumer. I can keep it on my bookshelf without worry of remote recall. A second hardcover backup has been made with the help of an online self-publishing house.

Joel (Author) ·

Hosting Your Website After Your Death:

Unlike with other digital expressions, format is not the problem: HTML, CSS, and backward-compatible web browsers will be with us forever. The problem is, authors pay for their own hosting.

…Keeping your website active is probably the last thing your family will wish to focus on in their grief. As they move on, attending to your digital affairs may not be high on their task list.

Joel (Author) ·

Adrienne LaFrance, writing for The Atlantic:

The web, as it appears at any one moment, is a phantasmagoria. It’s not a place in any reliable sense of the word. It is not a repository. It is not a library. It is a constantly changing patchwork of perpetual nowness.

You can’t count on the web, okay? It’s unstable. You have to know this.

…If a sprawling Pulitzer Prize-nominated feature in one of the nation’s oldest newspapers can disappear from the web, anything can. “There are now no passive means of preserving digital information,” said Abby Rumsey, a writer and digital historian. In other words if you want to save something online, you have to decide to save it. Ephemerality is built into the very architecture of the web, which was intended to be a messaging system, not a library.

I can envision only one sort-of-practical way the web can be “preserved” in any meaningful sense of the word: a giant microfiche archive with a card index. Yes, it would be inconvenient to use. It’s also the only option likely to be useable at all in 100 years.

Joel (Author) ·