Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Media and Messages

Dan Allosso

Long before I ever thought of going into the history game, I worked in the computer industry. “Long before” is an interesting issue of periodization. It was about twenty years ago: less than a human generation, but ten or fifteen computer generations of Moore’s Law. In that time, transistor counts on the central processors of computers have risen from a few hundred thousand to a few billion. What does that mean to historians?

I think the biggest change for me as a historian is that content has really become king. The ability to store and move huge volumes of data cheaply and effortlessly has changed the game for people who want to communicate their ideas with others. Network bandwidth and processing power have very visibly led the way, but storage technology has improved just as incredibly. And it’s the ability to store information that makes the whole thing work.

When I started building “clone” computers in the late ‘80s, we were putting 32 Megabyte Seagate hard drives in them. The ST-138R was a physically small drive by the standards of the day, measuring just 3.5” by 1.66” by about 5.25” and weighing a couple of pounds. An OEM could buy them for about $150, making them an attractive entry level drive. We also sold higher capacity drives, but the 32 MB drive and its 65 MB big brother were the “sweet spot,” the best deal on a dollars-per-megabyte basis.

32 Megabytes would hold a lot of text. Average word processor files used a couple dozen kilobytes per page, as they still do today. So you could write to your heart’s content. But there wasn’t a lot of room to store your research. A text-only copy of a decent-sized book (say James Joyce’s Ulysses on Project Gutenberg) took up a Megabyte and a half. So you’d only get about twenty of those on your disk—how you’d get them there was another issue, but we’ll skip over that. And if you were able to get your hands on high resolution images, you’d be lucky to store half a dozen.

Since that time, hard disks have gotten faster, smaller, and cheaper. It’s now possible to spend the same type of money that once bought an ST-138R, and get a disk that’s smaller in size but nearly a million times larger in capacity. Or, if you prefer the ultimate in portability to the ultimate in capacity, you can dispense with disks entirely and store your data on chips. For less than $50, you can carry 32 Gigabytes of data on your keychain.

I recently moved my dissertation project to just such a device. I now carry a 32 GB flash drive that holds all my writing, as well as all my research. In what would have taken a thousand ST-138Rs (that late-80s drive), I can store ten thousand high resolution photos or scans, thousands of books, and all the writing I’ll ever do on this project. Think of a thousand hard drives. Think of the electrical current they drew. They would have filled a room and heated your home. I carry this thing in my pocket (it’s backed up at home and at the office), and it allows me to always have the most recent versions of my work at my fingertips. It plugs into the USB port of whatever computer I happen to be sitting in front of, and transfers my data so fast I can’t tell it’s not on my local drive.

As I’m researching and writing, I can’t help thinking, although I want this work to come out as a regular, old-fashioned, paper-and-cardboard book, my writing and all the supporting primary evidence in its original form fits on a chip. I can’t help but believe that in the long run, this will change the way we do our research, write our histories, and communicate them to other people. The only question in my mind at this point is, will that “long run” be measured in human years, or computer generations?


Randall said...

I think about the first computer I used in grad school in the mid-1990s... Seems like it was powered by coal or a mouse on a wheel. Hard to believe the punctuated equilibrium of tech history.

hcr said...

When you wrote this, Dan, I was in Florida, where I visited the only bookstore in miles: a "Booksamillion." It did, indeed, have a huge selection of books, and I was struck by how very many books there were that were essentially long People Magazine-type books by former celebrities. Meaning no offense to them, I really couldn't care less about the biography of Harry Hamlin or Melissa Sue Gilbert. But someone is publishing these books. In hard copy, no less. Clearly someone is buying them. But also, clearly, these authors feel some need to mark their existence with a hard copy, old-fashioned book.

I haven't quite figured out what I think about it, but it did strike me that, all appearances to the contrary, the book isn't going anywhere in the short term.