It’s about the Media

A few weeks ago, sitting alone in my basement looking through one of those old cartons of assorted junk that might be valuable some day—doesn’t everyone have one tucked away, somewhere?—I came across a small container holding three undeveloped rolls of film. There was a note around one of the rolls, held in place by a rubber band that had perished into a thin, brittle strip that fell apart as I picked at it, and the note told me that the shots had been taken at a summer picnic at an oceanside park in West Vancouver.

I remembered the event in question, but I had no memory at all of setting these films aside, or of any reason I might have had for not getting them developed at the time. They were dated July, 1987, and here they were, twenty-eight years later, 72 undeveloped photographs, with at least one of the people in them long since dead. What to do with them, I wondered. Could I even get them developed nowadays? I still don’t know the answer to that question but I suspect I’ll be able to find someone, somewhere, to do the job.

That whole exercise, though, of remembering the almost ritualistic way we used to use cameras, got me thinking about the revolution in photography since the introduction of the iPhone just a few years ago, and that led me, in turn, to think about media in general and the amazing changes that have taken place in that single department during my own writing career.

Media (the kind with a small ‘m’), are the data storage devices we use, and they needn’t be electronic. I wrote my first novel, for example, back in the 1970s, on paper and in longhand. For “storage media” I used nineteen, 8 1/2” X 11” lined, spiral bound notebooks, each 60 pages in size. 1,140 hand-written pages, amounting to about 250,000 words. I still have that original manuscript, and in the couple of years it took me to write that first draft I was the personification of the ink-stained wretch, my fingers permanently blackened with ink from my fountain pens.

I had an electronic typewriter, but found it easier and more convenient to write my first draft in longhand, and then to edit it as I typed it later, generating a second-draft manuscript. In those days, though, we never dreamed of being able to go back to a previous version of a typescript and simply click into the text and start writing again—that was literally inconceivable thirty years ago. “Cut and paste” back then meant exactly what it said—you typed your new text onto a new page, then used scissors to cut your existing version of the manuscript, and paste to patch the new section or revision into place. It was clumsy and messy and it involved a lot of under-the-breath muttering and not a few profanities over the mounting frustration caused by the increasingly ungainly bundle of “finished” pages of varying length and thickness.

But then came the computer, bringing the inconceivable luxury of being able to edit and insert text instantly, and with it came the  magic of the floppy disk—which meant that you could keep a backup copy of your work safely on a “floppy” disk—portable media that you could store in a safe place away from your place of work! And it worked brilliantly, until the technology caught up to itself…

The original disks really were floppy—7” square cardboard envelopes containing disks made from thin, pliable and fragile plastic film. Then came 3 1/2” “hard” floppies, which had at least twice the storage space of the old disks, and for a very short while the two sets of media coexisted… Next thing we knew, though, computers no longer had slots for 7” floppies, so overnight all your stored records on that medium were obsolete and useless.

Then the 3 1/2” disk went the same way, with the introduction of CD ROMS and DVDs…

And then those went out the window, too. At one point I had eight large novels, each 200,000+ words long, backed up on a boxed collection of 3 1/2” disks, and no device that would let me access what was on them… My new computer had simply come without a drive that would accommodate 3 1/2” floppies. They had been deemed obsolete. And now I have fifteen finished novels, one memoir and several works-in-progress, all stored on CD ROMs that I won’t be able to access on my next new computer. Now, though, we have the real magic of the Cloud, and the program called Dropbox, but that’s another column altogether, not to mention a whole ’nuther ball game, as someone famous once said…