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ATPM 12.05
May 2006




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by Mark Tennent,

Data Composting

When we move home and office, we have always set up our new location in a larger space than we had before. Our first flat (apartment) had a tiny back yard sandwiched between the fire escapes surrounding it. Later, our homes grew in size with commensurably larger gardens. Our present house, the largest so far, has roughly an acre of land in an English seaside town center, the car parking area being larger than our last garden alone.

With the growth in garden size comes an increasing burden of unwanted garden material. As lawns get larger so does the pile of clippings from the mower’s collecting box. Annual pruning of shrubs and trees creates heaps of woody material that has to be disposed of in some way, by burning, taking to the municipal tip, or composting. Since moving to our present home and office in 2003, I have bought and exhausted eight garden shredders, each heavier-duty than the previous one (we have a lot of trees). As a consequence we have seven compost bins and a wormery that are just about able to cope with the vegetative waste the garden generates. The black, earthy compost they produce gets spread around our gardens, making them more fertile and able to produce even more material to be composted. Plus we get the luscious crops of fruit and vegetables and the flowers my partner loves so much.

If only the same composting cycle could be used with digital data. My first “real” computer had twin 3″ floppy drives. The CPM System was on one disk, the other loaded programs into the computer’s RAM, and work was saved onto other disks. Although this little computer was in use every day, I doubt we had more than a few floppy disks containing everything we had done with our computer. This included a range of books that were output to “galleys,” which were cut and pasted with real glue. In those days the artwork rapidly filled our storage area with large card mount-boards.

My next machine had a 20 MB hard disk, an unbelievable amount of storage space that I never managed to fill even though we had become “desktop publishers” and were combining text and graphics into magazines. A complete eight-page newsletter would still fit onto a 3.5″ floppy, and data backup was onto the many hundreds of floppy disks we rapidly accumulated.

Then in 1989 we moved to Macs, one each because we had become “designers.” These had 40 MB hard disks, which never seemed to be big enough. We struggled on using data compression techniques, early forms of StuffIt, DiskDoubler, and the like. Floppy disks were still our only form of back up until it became obvious that we needed bigger storage space, and so began the SCSI chains of external devices and hard drives. By then the files for a magazine would need so many floppy disks that we turned to a new type of removable hard disk called SyQuest. At one point we discovered that we had over £1,000 of 44 MB SyQuest cartridges at printers, photo-setting bureaux, scanning houses, and with clients. This was not a happy situation to be in, and when the first CD burners became available we turned to them as our salvation. We even made a small living by burning other computer users’ data onto CDs for them. At least we could dispose of the pile of paper and cardboard that used to be the artwork, as files were “run-out” as camera-ready bromides and film.

Nowadays, after ten years or more, we have hundreds of CDs containing all our work, applications, letters to the bank manager, and so on. Latterly we use DVD’s to transport work, looking similar, but able to hold the same amount of information as half a dozen CDs. Our Macs have more RAM than the combined memory of all of the computers we have owned in the past. Their internal hard disks can store hundreds of gigabytes of files and, luckily, have some space left for more. Data backup is still a problem, solved only by having multiple hard disks mirroring each other, both internally and as FireWire drives cluttering up our desktops.

The combined total of our data is measured in terabytes (thousands of gigabytes), an amount growing at a terribly fast rate. The last jobs I did were two books for the Imperial War Museum in London. At nearly 200 pages each with three colored pictures per spread, they wouldn’t fit onto even a couple of DVDs and had to be transported by hard disk. I did try to FTP one of the books; it took over ten hours to complete and was not without problems, so it needed watching for the entire process.

Like our gardens, the amount of waste material keeps growing, and we can see no end to it as multimedia takes the place of 2D graphics, and film and music replace static images. The really sad part to all this data we have stored is that shortly we will not be able to access a huge amount of it. We have already left behind floppy disks, thrown away SyQuest cartridges and Zip disks, and ancient hard drives have been erased and disposed of with no thought to what they contained. An enormous amount of our lives were spent creating the information, and it is now lost. Even when we retain the CDs and DVDs, the applications used to make the files are no longer viable. When Classic is finally abandoned, so too will be the CDs (not without some relief) because we will not be able to open the information saved on them.

This will be a great loss to future generations, not because it is our work that is lost but because the ephemera of this entire generation will be gone. We can look back in time to the last century and beyond because the technology of the era was simple and mechanical. As long as the film stock can be rescued, we can see exactly what life was like then, with sound and moving images, because we can easily recreate the machinery to view it on. Printed material, posters, books, and newspapers all preserve the life and times of the people living then.

Our generation uses increasingly sophisticated digital devices, which rely on specific computers running the right programs to access the files. For example: Film cameras have all but disappeared as digital photography has become the norm. At the same time, there has been a move away from printed images to showing them only on-screen. In generations to come there may be a huge gap in their knowledge of our times simply because we haven’t left anything for our successors to see. Where once an amateur photographer would save all his negatives and prints to be handed down, these will no longer exist, and it is highly unlikely that all the millions of digital images already taken will ever be printed or saved in any other format.

Similarly, we could well be seeing the end of printed magazines and newspapers as they move to online and digital formats such as this one you are reading now. ATPM was first created in a proprietary format called DOCMaker, which only runs under Mac Classic. In the next year or so those early editions will only be available to view on an increasingly small number of obsolete computers. In the UK, spending on advertising in print has shrunk at the same rate as it has grown on TV channels and online sites. As the number of cable, satellite, and digital terrestrial channels multiply, advertising becomes cheaper. Many TV advertisements are simple Flash movies requiring no actors or a director and film crew.

Where does one go to buy or sell a car? It used to be the classified ads of the local rag. eBay has made it cheaper, easier, and quicker to address a worldwide audience and has captured the small ads market, stealing the revenue used to run local papers. I used to buy a daily newspaper and Sunday broadsheet, a total of about £360 per year. Now I pick and choose articles from around the world that cost me nothing to read and give a far more balanced viewpoint.

With composting our garden waste, we at least get a new product as an end result that is beneficial to the garden as a whole, and that arguably continues the spirit of the garden by allowing its future generations to grow and multiply. Composting computer data just eradicates it for ever. Apart from the old CDs hanging above our spinach to deter the fat pigeons who live nearby, all the massive amount of time, money, and energy we have put into creating the data will be lost, never to be recovered.

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Reader Comments (4)

Lee Bennett (ATPM Staff) · April 28, 2006 - 16:46 EST #1
This feels pretty timely, going right along with Seagate's announcement of a 750 GB Barracuda hard drive.
Mark Tennent (ATPM Staff) · April 28, 2006 - 17:36 EST #2
Too small, too late. Even a 750GB drive is a splash in the ocean.

Soon we won't be able to open QuarkXPress files made in 2003 because IntelMacs cannot run XPress 4.
Christopher Turner (ATPM Staff) · May 1, 2006 - 00:41 EST #3
For what it's worth, it's fair to assume current and future versions of QuarkXPress, whether they run on Intel Macs or not, will be able to open files created with older versions of XPress. Backward file format compatibility is a must for an application, like XPress, and if it failed to offer it, users wouldn't upgrade. (Well, they probably would, but then they'd start looking at InDesign, too.)

With regard to ATPM's early editions being in DOCMaker format, to guard against format obsolescence, Michael spent a great deal of time converting those issues to PDF format. Your point, however, Mark, is well taken.
Mark Tennent (ATPM Staff) · May 1, 2006 - 05:22 EST #4
What will happen to the huge number of QuarkXPress 2 and 3 files we have? At the moment we have to open them in XPress 5 (or 4, then 5) and save as XPress 5. Finally we can open those files in XPress 6. The point being that Classic will not run on MacIntels and XPress 4 and 5 are Classic only apps.

With inDesignCS2, currently my preferred application, I can at least open Xpress 3.3 and 4 documents but not without some glitches and not XPress 5 ones which have to be converted to XPress 4, also in Classic.

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