Permanent Records

Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh

While I am a writer, I hardly write anymore. Praise be the Muse, the words still flow, but my pen often sits idle, chiefly relegated to the composition of grocery lists. You're reading this essay in Scene4 Magazine, a journal published exclusively online; oddly enough, I jotted down a quick outline of ideas on an index card with a pencil, but the nuts-and-bolts creation of this piece—the "writing"—took place on my Apple laptop computer.

As a kid in school, I filled marble and spiral notebooks with classwork, as well as doodles. Somewhere in high school, doodles vied with snatches of verse. Soon, more notebooks appeared, extracurricular ones in which I hammered out the phrasings and stanzas of poems, along with essays on lofty subjects. From marginalia to juvenilia.

Then around 1986, in my sophomore year of college, I began writing, or rather, typing my papers on a computer (usually my pal's Commodore 64), saving my work on a 5.25" floppy disk, and printing the finished product on a dot-matrix printer. A short time later I saved my files on smaller, 3.5" hard plastic "diskettes." Ink-jet printers replaced those noisy dot-matrix machines with their crude approximations of letters.

I still inscribe musings and ideas in a small notepad, particularly when I travel. And I've always composed poetry while out walking—a la Wordsworth—or running—a la Walsh. But whether I transcribe a polished text from memory or tease a new article to life from scratch, the work gets written final form on a computer.

Umberto Eco, celebrated author, critic, and bibliophile most famous for his 1980 novel The Name of the Rose, lamented that many of his drafts lay trapped on floppy disks, unreadable because of altered memory paradigms in computer technology. His critique gets it half-right. If you tossed your outdated Macintosh or Commodore long ago but shelved your disks out of some archival instinct, you can still buy an old working computer with a floppy-disk and/or diskette drive to access your "trapped" data. The real problem is a floppy disk's lifespan; information gets encoded on it magnetically and magnetic fields gradually decay. That's just physics. Even under ideal storage conditions, a disk might last 50 years. So, you can keep plugging away until the disk degrades or the obsolete computer transcends repair.

More to Eco's point, you could buy an external floppy disk drive and hook it up to your current computer, but your 21st century software will likely find the encoded bits unreadable. It would be like tuning in your radio to listen to the ballgame with the announcers transmitting the play-by-play in Morse.

Since audio cassette tapes work on the same principle, they degrade quickly too. I have a cassette deck in my car and recently tried playing a tape I made in 1987. Side A begins with "You're the One for Me" by James D-Train Williams, but I could faintly detect the murky undulations of Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused"—in reverse—at the end of Side B. Inevitably, sounds on one side bleed into the opposite side. Playlists are easily reproduced, but unless transferred to another format, unique recordings such as a child's first words or a conversation with an elderly relative will slowly vanish, lost forever.

Compact Discs, or CDs, largely replaced cassette tapes and floppy disks for the storage of audio and computer data. They have many virtues, primarily their longevity; since they use a different paradigm—digitally encoded information scanned or "read" by a laser—CDs do not degrade like magnetic tapes nor will they wear down from friction like an analog record tracked by a stylus.

And yet, CDs became outmoded by a new, smaller format for storing music digitally: MP3 files. And they got booted from computers by USB flash drives, which can hold far greater troves of data more compactly.

When the CD era dawned I was already too invested in vinyl records, or LPs, to shift, the cost of acquiring hundreds of albums in CD form absurdly prohibitive. Besides, as a matter of aesthetics, I much prefer records. Today, I have nearly 800 LPs and less than 150 CDs.

The transfer of recorded information, be it text, audio, or video—the re-writing, re-typing, re-recording, replication . . . it's an old frustration. Some of it gets driven by natural causes—material decay, fires, floods, etc., some by innovation and subsequent market forces. Over the last 40 years, the music industry, with its paradigm shifts in recording media, has coerced consumers several times into buying new audio components and, by necessity, repurchasing much of the music they already owned.

The Benedictine monks in The Name of the Rose toiled at the transcription and illustration (illumination) of books, primarily the gospels and other religious texts. As it was 1327, the only way to make copies of books was to write them by hand on vellum, a paper-thin layer of animal skin (the word paper comes from the Latin papyrus, a reference to Cyperus papyrus, an aquatic reed which grows along the Nile, but it was the Chinese who pioneered true papermaking, a different process using different materials.)

Johannes Gutenberg, born around 1400, revolutionized the replication of books with his movable-type printing press of 1439. And then, most recently, the Internet subsumed the printing press, along with audio and video content, enabling the user to instantly summon virtually anything that was ever recorded in any medium (be it written, spoken, sung, played, or filmed) just by typing a few search terms.

But even the Web's seemingly total dissemination of information has its limits. First, you have to have an electronic device of some sort in order to access it. At the other end, servers must be maintained for there to be Websites to access. The Internet can be censored, such as in totalitarian China. And then, underlying the whole proposition is electricity: no alternating current, no World Wide Web.


The word "lapidary" can be used as an adjective to denote something metaphorically written in stone and thus considered permanent: Dante's Divine Comedy and Shakespeare's Hamlet are two lapidary works of western literature.

Given enough heat, even stone becomes liquid: molten lava. And the Earth will eventually get very hot; when our sun goes into its red giant phase it will expand hundreds of times in size, engulfing Mercury, Venus, and our planet. Even if we engraved our most precious records on tungsten ingots—tungsten has the highest melting point of all elements at 3,222ºC / 6,192ºF—they'd melt like butter on a hot skillet, the coolest solar temperatures measuring somewhere around 4,320ºC / 7,800ºF.

Despite every seemingly lapidary technique for recording our observations and insights, our poetry and music, our history, the many variations of our human culture and, most essentially, the languages in which they're expressed—none of it will last if it stays on this planet. The Elgin Marbles and Stonehenge, Shakespeare's first folio and the Book of Kells, Beethoven and The Beatles, the Rosetta Stone and The Rolling Stones, pyramids, ziggurats, every epitaph, every inscription, the Library of Congress and the Louvre, the Parthenon and the Taj Mahal, the proliferation of data and information on the Internet…. If it doesn't eventually make it off this rock, all of it may as well be scribbled on toilet paper.

Vellum and vinyl, marble and granite, clay tablets in Mesopotamia, papyrus scrolls in the Library of Alexandria, silicon chips in California, analog and digital, Wifi and, in the end, Hi-Fi….

Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, both launched in 1977, each contain what has been called The Golden Record, along with a stylus with which to play it. It's an actual LP, a 12-inch gold-plated copper disc to be played at a speed of one rotation every 3.6 seconds. On it we encoded 115 images of our planet, along with sounds of Earth, music from Earth, and Greetings to the Universe in 55 languages both ancient and contemporary.

Among the music from around the world on our Earth's Greatest Hits sampling are three selections from Johann Sebastian Bach: his Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F, first movement; "Gavotte en rondeaux" from the Partita no. 3 in E major for violin; and "The Well-Tempered Clavier," Book 2, Prelude and Fugue in C, No.1, performed by Glenn Gould. Beethoven got two spots, the first movement of his Fifth Symphony and String Quartet No. 13 in B flat, Opus 130, Cavatina. Mozart was accorded a single song, his Queen of the Night aria, no. 14., from The Magic Flute, performed by soprano Edda Moser (how the first movement of Eine kleine Nachtmusik didn't make the cut eludes me.) Sentient life elsewhere will also hear "Melancholy Blues" performed by Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven and "Johnny B. Goode," written and performed by Chuck Berry.

So far, these two recordings—curiously, and for me satisfyingly, analog LPs—comprise the only permanent record of our species not vulnerable to Earthbound calamities or the planet's eventual destruction by our sun. Both Voyagers have left the heliopause and entered interstellar space. That's not to say that either of these exploratory spacecraft couldn't be destroyed in a second by colliding with a small fragment; each ship is traveling around 35,000 miles per hour.

But assuming the safety of the relative vacuum of space, in about 40,000 years Voyager 1 will sail within 1.6 light-years (9.3 trillion miles) of AC+79 3888, a star in the Camelopardalis constellation. Around the same time, Voyager 2 will pass within 1.7 light-years of the star Ross 248; in 296,000 years it will pass 4.3 light-years from Sirius, the Dog Star, which every young astronomer learns is the night sky's brightest star.

We intended each Golden Record to act as an Earth ambassador, to provide a glimpse of what life is like on our planet and to bear dozens of cheerful greetings of our species to intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos. But just two records strapped to soon-inert spaceships comprises less than a message in a bottle. Hopefully, we'll improve our odds soon. But if some sentient species with enough technological know-how manages to intercept our far-flung salutations, where will we be in 40,000 years? 296,000 years? A million?

The Golden Record might turn out to be a permanent record after all. It will be our cenotaph.


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Patrick Walsh | Scene4 Magazine

Patrick Walsh is a writer and poet.
He writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. For more of his columns and other writings, check the Archives.

©2021 Patrick Walsh
©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine




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