Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sophocles, Slient Film, and Google Books: What Gets Lost To History?


The other night, I was reading (or attempting to read) Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles' "Ajax". The introduction to the copy I read mentioned the startling fact that only 9 of 123 plays have survived into the present day.

As he died around 405/406 B.C., that loss is understandable.

However, a new study about the loss of silent films made within the past 90-100 years floored me:
The American silent era produced about 10,919 films. Just 2,749 of those are still with us in some complete form, either as an original American 35mm version, a foreign release, or as a lower-quality copy. That's just 25 percent of the silent era still available. A further five percent of films survive in an incomplete form, and the remaining 70 percent of work from the era is completely lost to history.
According to the study, many of the losses happened early on. Warner Bros. and Twentieth Century-Fox lost more or less the entirety of their silent film archives in a 1930s fire. Universal-International destroyed its remaining silent film copies in 1948. And those studios who opted to keep the material around usually did so cheaply — and poorly. Once the silent era gave way to sound, most studios put their silent film reels in storage.
Between this, the nearing end of movies being made on actual film, and the unreliability of digital film storage, there's a very real possibility of countless hours of cinematic history - however breathtaking or mundane - to be lost forever in the coming decades.

Although paper and celluloid are easily destroyed, digitizing them for archival purposes is no guarantee of flawless preservation - just as Google Books:
The obsession with digital errors in Google Books arises from the sense that these mistakes are permanent, on the record. Earlier this month, Judge Denny Chin ruled that Google’s scanning, en masse, of millions of books to make them searchable is legal. In the future, more and more people will consult Google’s scans. Because of the speed and volume with which Google is executing the project, the company can’t possibly identify and correct all of the disturbances in what is supposed to be a seamless interface. There’s little doubt that generations to come will be stuck with both these antique stains and workers’ hands.
Shaykin was an M.F.A. student in graphic design at the Rhode Island School of Design when he was given an assignment to choose a book from Brown’s library that would serve as the basis for a series of projects. Even though he had the physical books readily available, he found it easier, as many people do, to access them through Google Books. Once he came across the first hand, he was hooked, and started digging deeper into Brown’s special-collections library, which was digitized by Google. He came upon many more anomalies. “In addition to hands and fingers, I found pages scanned through tissue paper, pages scanned while mid-turn, and fold-out maps and diagrams scanned while folded,” he explained. “The examples were everywhere. I quickly became obsessed, and filled my hard drive with gigabytes of downloaded PDFs.” He collected his strangest findings in a book called “Google Hands,” which ended up as one in a series of a dozen small hand-sewn books, each focussed on a different type of glitch. Through social media, he came into contact with like-minded collectors, and they began swapping artifacts.
With Kindles and Nooks replacing books, BitTorrent  and Bandcamp replacing album sales, and Netflix and Redbox replacing niche theaters and video stores, it'll be scary to see what doesn't get passed on into the hazy digital future.

Or if future generations will even be able to notice the difference.

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