Preserving my digital life

Hello again! I’ve been quiet for a long while (4+ years!) but have kept busy. I’m fortunate to have stayed fully employed, especially during the pandemic, and have had lots of time while working from home to realize the challenges I’ve created for myself over so many years of accumulating stuff.

Truth is, I’m drowning in media. I have amassed a large library of music, movies, TV, books, and photos. I also subscribe to most of the music and video streaming services, and pay for storage space from Microsoft, Google and Apple. I ran out of physical space for all of this years ago, and am living an increasingly cluttered life both in real and digital space. At the same time, there is more new content, especially in TV, coming out than I can possibly keep up with. I end up having nearly no time to enjoy any of this media I’ve collected.

Additionally, I’ve spent much of the last 3 years immersed in video streaming technology, prompted by my church (Grace Church Cathedral, Charleston SC) efforts to stream its many services. I am one of a small team of people that make sure that our services get streamed on YouTube, where we’ve got more than 1000 subscribers. I’m finally getting to use real video switching and streaming systems, 45 years after first trying video technologies in high school.

Ever since I worked as a library page in Glen Ridge (my second paid job), I’ve been in love with libraries. I probably should have invested my college years in library science, but always thought I would have a lifelong career in information technology. I see pictures of some people’s personal libraries and am envious. My relatively small home has no real space for this.

I blame my cousin Bill for surfacing my tendencies as a collector when I was perhaps 10, getting me into stamp collecting. It didn’t take much to realize I cherished all forms of published or recorded material as well. Over time, I’ve morphed into what might best be called a hoarder.

I’ve long considered what to do with all of this. The simple answer is just to get rid of most of it. After all, most of the music is online. Many movies and TV shows are available at least partially on-demand. Books are a special challenge, but most of the still-relevant books I have are available in libraries, or through an a la carte system like Kindle Unlimited. Photos – these are almost irreplaceable. The dollar value of what I have accumulated is very low, pennies on the dollar, so it really just comes down to the sentimental value of the content to me. A reasonable portion of the music, particularly choral performances and other niche music (e.g. drum corps, organ) are not available on any streaming system. I particularly resent paying for video services that constantly remove programs, even though paying for these services is the only way to catch new series. To that end, I’ve spent much of my free time converting stuff into digital files, stored on hard drives and cloud services. And, I’ve run into secondary issues, discovering that my drives decay over time, or fail outright with little warning, and that the precious tapes, CDs, DVDs and photos also decay or fail.

I plan to talk about my various efforts to organize and digitize this various content in separate articles. I’ve made forays into photo scanning, converting music into digital files, and recently converting video into digital files. This is creating large storage needs, and leading me to the next challenge – how to safely store this stuff digitally so that it will survive time and peril.

How listening to music has evolved

Listening to music has changed so much over the last 100 years, and has become highly individualized.  Think of the evolution:

  1. Live performance was the only way to listen to music for centuries.  Print music publishing  was born.
  2. Audio and film recording made performances available for posterity. Sound recordings were first available after Edison’s invention in  1877, but weren’t widely adopted until about 1910.  Edison also effectively started the movie business in 1893. Recordings allowed people to buy or borrow performances, and listen repeatedly from their homes, whenever desired.  Music sharing was born.
  3. Radio brought performances to everyone in 1920, essentially for free, supported by advertising.  Television enhanced the experience in the 30’s.  Broadcasting was born.
  4. Stereo headphones allowed people to listen privately in 1943, without bothering others.  High-quality listening peaked.
  5. BASF developed modern tape recording in the 30’s, . Recorders were relatively expensive until the introduction of cassettes in 1963.  Cassettes made it easy for people to copy and share performances.  Recording companies started to complain about theft.
  6. FM stereo radio brought high-fidelity broadcasting to everyone in 1961.
  7. MTV started in 1981, one of the early cable TV channels, and made video a part of the music experience.
  8. Portable players allowed people to bring the performances everywhere.  In 1979, Sony introduced the Walkman, and individuals listening using headphones surged.
  9. Digital recording allowed performances to be captured as files, using expensive equipment starting in the late 60’s.
  10. Personal computers made it easy for everyone to capture and share performances as files.  Compression technologies like MP3 made the files small, and made it possible to send them over personal connections (dial-up phone lines) in minutes.  Computer disks could hold massive amounts of content.
  11. The Internet became ubiquitous in the 90’s.  Sharing music and video was now possible almost instantly across the globe using digital files.  Anyone who shared content without paying the owner was possibly a pirate. a criminal.
  12. Digital media players were introduced in the late 90’s, and Apple introduced the iPod in 2001. People could carry hundreds of songs in their pocket.
  13. Sharing and delivery systems like Napster (1999), iTunes, Spotify, Facebook, Youtube, and many many others were developed and available free to everyone.  The iTunes Store (2003) in particular legitimized the sale and delivery of recordings in completely digital form.
  14. Smartphones like the iPhone were introduced in 2007.  While previous cellphones had media playback capability, combining the seamless media management experience of the iPod with cellphone technology and a touch interface made the technology universally appealing.
  15. In 2021, most content publishing companies have adopted streaming technologies for nearly everything. For music, four major players (Apple, Spotify, Amazon, Tidal) have made nearly all music available on-demand for a “small” monthly fee of $10-20/month. At the same time, purchases of physical digital media have crashed, with most national chains selling only a very limited selection of music CDs.
  16. Oddly, the vinyl record has made a comeback as a preferred format for music fans!

Everyone became a content creator and consumer.  Music, movies, shows, books, news, training, correspondence, blogs, posts, tweets: it’s all content. Artists, authors, composers, recording companies, studios, publishers, teachers, universities: everyone has had to figure out how to stay relevant and get paid.

Personal computers, smartphones and today’s networks have made content creation and consumption completely personal and portable.  You can be nearly anywhere and read, write, watch, listen, talk, or perform.  AT&T’s 1993 commercials, “You will”, are fulfilled.

I focused primarily on music in this list, but most of the timeline holds for other forms of media as well: movies, books, news, art.

Our increasing disrupted life

“It’s Not TV, It’s a TV App” by Shelly Palmer

[This article is from 2016, and VR has not taken over the media world – yet. The rest, about being increasingly isolated from one another while being completely absorbed in “social” apps on devices very much applies in 2021.]

Shelly Palmer is a wonderful observer of technological change in our lives.  He has written extensively on the changes in the delivery of entertainment and media content, and particularly about television.  Today, he has made some predictions about the future impact of virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and bots on the technology we all use today.

I worry that his predictions will make us even more isolated that we are today.  He foresees a world where people will wear some form of (presumably unobtrusive) VR glasses that will essentially replace using video screens, making televisions and movie theaters obsolete or at least fundamentally different.  I see rooms full of people having individual experiences, and not interacting with one another.

My wife hates when I put on headphones. It isolates me from her.  She retaliates by becoming completely absorbed in something online.

We’ve become completely social, frequently at a distance.  Experiences are shared privately and with masses.

Circling back to Shelly’s article, I see many people around me  already totally consumed with their devices.  As a technologist specialized in digital communication, I guess I’ve been working toward that. I worry that VR and AR will significantly aggravate this.  Content consumption has always been at odds with other activities in life like driving, walking, doing much of anything else.  Portable devices made doing and consuming content more compatible, but also made us more isolated.

We are overwhelmed with choices every moment of every day.  If you are connected, you literally have the world at your fingertips.  Time has not changed – there are still 24 hours in each day, 365 days in each year, according to our current Earth-centric measuring system.