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From Here to Eternity

Digitized memorabilia such as home videos and family photograph albums can last forever. But they may well drown our descendents in accumulated megabytes

When my local video store recently held a sale of “film classics,” I picked up, at a bargain price, a copy of the 1974 movie Death Wish. Why would I want to own this chestnut, featuring Charles Bronson as an architect turned vigilante after the murder of his wife and brutalization of his daughter? Because about two-thirds of the way through it there appears on the screen for a full four seconds-possibly five-the picture of a sign with my company’s name on it.

This free advertising came as a reward for saving the film production crew from an embarrassing blunder. As we watched a scene being shot in front of our work site, we were amazed to see that an actor playing a construction worker was wearing the wrong kind of hardhat. He had on a flat helmet, reminiscent of a World War I doughboy, rather than the familiar hardhat of today, which is modeled along the lines of World War II headware. (The flat helmet is worn by heavy construction underground workers-the “moles”-but never by building construction workers.) We rushed in to prevent this terrible gaffe, and benevolently provided a hardhat of the proper sort. The grateful director told us to position our five-foot-square company sign as a backdrop for the following take.

The movie’s release, about a year later, brought telephone calls from friends and colleagues who had seen it and noticed the sign. It’s amazing the impact that can be made by an image that appears on the screen for just a few seconds. (Our favorite call came from a competitor who said that we’d spoiled his evening.) The sudden celebrity was enjoyable but fleeting. Even though the film was a popular success, it was soon gone, and the telephone calls stopped coming. Ah, well: sic transit gloria mundi; so passes away the glory of this world.

Or does it? As I watched the film at home on my VCR, I thought anew about the ephemeral nature of things. On my television screen, that sign-writ large in red letters upon a glistening white background-looks as fresh and new as it ever did. In the movies it has been saved from the ravages of time.

And physical preservation, first on film, then on videotape, is just the beginning. Death Wish will soon be put into digital form, if it has not been already. As the fiber-optic webbing of the world proceeds apace, more and more of the objects we perceive-including “movies on demand”-will come to us in streams of digits. And when pictures are put into digital form they become, theoretically, everlasting; my company sign could endure through eternity. I say “theoretically” because the physical materials in which the 1’s and 0’s are embedded will not last forever. We don’t really know how well CDs and other digital storage media will withstand the rigors of time; the technologies are too new.

But with digitization, the information can outlive the medium; transferring bits from one disk to another produces a perfect replica of the original. This leads me to speculate that we can preserve our digital patterns into infinity. “Things” are inherently perishable; arrangements of numbers are not. They endure like works of literature or symphony scores or mathematical expressions. Thus they are very different from a painting, a printed photograph, or any other physical artifact that inevitably undergoes some degradation or mutation every time a copy is made.

Just think: as ordinary photography moves into the digital realm-as we replace atoms with bits by recording images in binary code-family albums will last forever. Home videos, unless lost or destroyed, will be eternal too. Our capacity to store them in the microscopic world of silicon chips and magnetic and optical disks is, for all practical purposes, approaching the infinite.

I’m not sure we’re ready for such a transformation. In life as we have known it, old photos fade and crumble, and boxes of them, along with albums, slides, and reels of family movies, disintegrate and are eventually discarded. Only a few precious mementos are preserved, perhaps restored, and passed along. The natural world teaches us that death and decay are vital to ecological health. Are there similar social processes that might be vital to communal health? In the digital age nothing need be lost; do we face the prospect of drowning in trivia as the generations succeed each other?

I take about a thousand family and trip photos each year, and accumulate perhaps five hours of videotape. Give me 50 years of this, let me save it all digitally, assume my children and their in-laws do the same, and you have a threefold multiple for each generation. This means that my great-grandchildren will inherit well over a million photos plus 6,000 hours of home movies. If they devote one hour each day for viewing-allowing three seconds to glance at a photo and scanning movies at triple-speed-they will spend nine years examining this material. They will not thank me for this. And they certainly will not have the time to look at Death Wish.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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