Philly Creative Guide

Here's the Thing

Bill Haley

The Ghost in the Machine
by Bill Haley, 1 Oct 2010

Bill Haley is one of the founders of He is also President, Interactive of Allied Pixel (, an integrated media production firm specializing in the convergence of HD video, web and interactive media. He can be reached at [email protected].

Once a month, Facebook sends a friend request to me on behalf of my old friend Wayne. Which is a bit unsettling, since Wayne died a year ago this month. There he is, smiling at a Phillies game, very much alive.

And there's no way to get Facebook to stop sending, since Wayne was the only one who had access to his account. There was a New York Times article not long ago about this very issue. Social networking sites do a great job of connecting people while they're living, but have no way of disconnecting them after they're deceased. So now there are who knows how many ghosts in the machine, stranded in a digital purgatory.

The Ghost in the Machine

And that I think underscores the ephemeral relationship between humans and the digital realm. How many times have you pressed the save button on your voicemail, hoping to keep that special message forever?

But nothing is forever, and the lifespan of most digital data can be measured in days or months or perhaps – if you're really, really careful – years.

The Ghost in the Machine

Tapes shed oxide, discs get scratched, memory cards get corrupted, hard drives fail. The media you back it up onto fails. Even the cloud, eventually, will let you down.

CD, DVD and Blu-ray discs are rated to last up to 150 years under optimal conditions. Sounds reassuring, right? Well, put one of those discs into the hands of my three year old and see how long your data lasts. The truth is that all digital media is incredibly fragile.

A recent study by the Library of Congress found that old analog formats were far more physically stable than today's digital formats – surviving about 150 years longer than digital recordings. It also found that data on CD-R discs lasts only three to five years before it begins to degrade.

The Ghost in the Machine

There is another culprit at work, and that is the problem of format evolution. If you're old enough to remember Wee Willy Webber, you also have lived to see vinyl records replaced by 8-tracks, then cassettes, CDs and MP3s. Or 8mm movies replaced by VHS, then Hi8, Digital 8, DV, HDV and AVCHD. The further back you go on the technology family tree, the harder it is to restore your data to a usable form – because those playback devices are getting scarcer and scarcer.

The good news is that we generally don't need digital data to last very long. That web site you built or that magazine ad you designed are almost as ephemeral as the media you create them on. Please don't be offended if I suggest that ten years from now (or perhaps even two,) no one is going to ask you to recreate it.

The Ghost in the Machine

But what about those things we really want to save? Those cherished family photos of Junior's first steps? That award-winning billboard campaign?

Most people who archive data for seriously long periods will tell you to go old school. For example, publishers will print out a manuscript on archival paper and store it in a controlled environment. Of course, that's not practical (or even possible) for other types of media.

The Ghost in the Machine

Digital Archiving for Filmmakers is a new book explaining best practices for media creators. You can download the PDF for free at

Probably the soundest advice for long-term archiving of digital media? Back it up in the most pristine, least compressed format you can, on two sets of media and store them in two separate places... and transfer them to the latest format every five years or so.

A perfect solution? No, a perfect solution does not exist. The promise of a lossless digital world is nothing more than that... a promise. This world is no place for purists. The digital realm, after all, is a human creation. There will always be a ghost in the machine. I do wonder if the ghost of Wayne will ever be freed from bondage.

Print Article Brought to you by: Bill Haley | President, Interactive of Allied Pixel