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When the medium truly is the message

It wasn't that long ago that the Philips audio cassette tape was the dominant storage medium for audio (and even some data) recording. Introduced in 1963, it soon overtook its predecessors as the mass-market way to record and play music and voice. Then came the compact disc (CD) in 1983, which quickly encroached on the cassette's market, and soon made the cassette all but obsolete. And now, it's the CD's turn to go to our corridor of displaced technologies, after an exciting 25-year run.

Interestingly, the audio cassette still remains the medium of choice for many “books on tape” users, since you can “swap” books easily, pick up where you left off, quickly go back to re-hear a sentence, and even skip ahead. And, according to some stories I wasn't able to confirm, it's also the only allowed music medium in some prisons, since the CD can easily be snapped in half and used as a pretty sharp weapon. Plus, it's easy to see which books you have on your shelf. Even so, book publisher Hachette just officially announced they would stop issuing books on tape; from now on it will be CDs and downloads only (and who knows for how long those CDs will be offered?).

[Some interesting statistics: According to the New York Times story on Hachette and books-on-tape, “Last year, only 400,000 music tapes were sold, representing one-tenth of 1 percent of all physical and digital music sales, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. In 1997, the figure was 173 million.Cassettes accounted for 7 percent of all sales in the $923 million audio-book industry in 2006, the latest year for which data is available, according to the Audio Publishers Association.” Also, global sales of CD-music albums peaked at 2.5 billion in 2000, and dropped to 1.7 billion in 2006.]

The reality is that the cassette is near-death, and that's no surprise. The history of our technology is also a tale of a new storage medium coming into acceptance, only to be superseded by another medium. The successor may be evolutionary, such as vinyl 33-rpm LP records supplanting the shellac 78-rpm records, or radically different, with non-mechanical storage using digital memory.

I won't get into a discussion that the audio quality of a CD is better or worse than a high-end LP or other vanquished storage formats. Any arguments about the best storage medium have both objective and subjective aspects, and emotions can run pretty strong on all sides. It's much more than dry, basic statistics about storage density, cost per bit or per second, and other technical aspects. It's also a matter of human factors and long-term identification, retrievability, accessibility, prior to actual recovery. And that's where we have to be careful not to fool ourselves.

If we think something's important and we'll need to read it 10, 20, or maybe even 50 or more years from now, there's no high-tech storage medium and format that we can count on. Each advance in storage technology also requires a more complex system to find, identify, and read the media itself. And while it may seem, right now, that the best strategy is therefore to upload and store data “in the cloud”, via some web-based service, that approach means that you're expecting that a lot of technology will be in place (as well as the storage-service provider) in the unknowable future. If history is any lesson, it's that such a hope is sketchy, at best.

Mental exercise : make two lists of storage media that have come and perhaps gone, one for consumer products, and one for technical markets. To get started, I'll give you these: LP, 78, eight track, videotape (VHS and Beta), open reel tape, DC100 cassette, Philips cassette, CD, Zip drive, floppy disk, hard disk, paper tape, punch cards, and flash memory. It's a very revealing exercise!
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