Thursday 29 January 2009

Digital Downsizing

Maybe space really is the final frontier!

Uploaded to Flickr by Prashant Wosti
It's a liberating experience to sort all your worldly possessions out ready to emigrate. I can now say that I've looked at every single thing I've accumulated over my life (and believe me that's a lot!) and decided whether to bin it, box it up to store, or take it with me to Canada (in the suitcase or by shipping it). A lot of it has been about trying to downsize, trying to get rid of things, sell them or give them away. Strangely, the value of our possessions has changed for us now - it's much more about size, than cost. If something is big or bulky, it's far more likely we'll get rid of it - because storage space is limited and the amount we can take is limited. So anything that's small can be kept more easily. And if there's any way to make things smaller, we'll jump at the chance.

So what's the smallest thing of all? Data. I can fit 8 Gig of data on a USB key on my keyring... and I can buy one terabyte of storage, taking up less space than a paperback book, for under £100.

Naturally, this is something we have taken advantage of. We (and full credit goes to my wife, for she has spent many many hours, no, days on this!) have now digitized our entire collection of Audio CDs, DVDs, and computer CDs & DVDs onto 3 terabyte hard drives. The space saving is simply amazing. What once took up probably 8 floor to ceiling CD racks, now fits in a ladies' handbag!

Tech note: In case you are interested how we did this, we used DVD Decrypter to decrypt bought DVDs, and others can be just copied as VOB files. For the audio CDs we used Exact Audio Copy to store them as lossless FLAC files.

And it's not just audio & video files you can do this to. Last night I spent a couple of hours using the rather fancy auto-sheet-feeding-and-turning multi-size-recognizing photocopier my office has to turn a huge crate of documents and paper I could barely lift, into a little over 300Mb of PDF files... which I can fit on my USB key in my pocket! It was great, I just dropped a document on, and it scanned the whole thing and e-mailed it to me. And then I can throw away the originals.

This got me thinking about the direction things are going. I know that it's well known that technology is miniaturizing but what hadn't really hit me until now is that "stuff" is miniaturizing too.. Space doesn't mean the same thing as it used to. If you'd told someone from 20 years ago that I could somehow convert my collections of documents, music recordings and films such that they'd fit in such a tiny amount of space, I think they'd have struggled to comprehend such a possibility.

It's even more strange to think that not only can I do that compression, but I can also "expand" this into physical things again once I arrive in Canada - I could print out my documents, or create original quality DVDs or CDs from the ripped VOB & FLAC files (I probably won't, but that's not the point!). It's like a physical version of zipping and unzipping.

The mind boggles about where this trend might take us... Maybe 3D printers that exist today might evolve towards something more like the replicator technology in Star Trek - physical objects (inanimate ones only I would assume) being converted into streams of data taking neglible physical space (especially with the advent of cloud computing) and then recreated later into the physical world.

Almost any information now, be it sound, picture, video or written, can be converted to a stream of 1's and 0's. When you think of it like that it's no wonder that copyright is such a hot topic these days. How can anybody own what is essentially a big long number? In theory if I could find the right numbers I could generate masterpieces that have never been painted, or ground-breaking novels that have never been written!

Uploaded to Flickr by Rob Sheridan

I for one, am excited to see where this trend goes. I'll leave you with this amusing image I came across on Flickr - where an office retailer has started to notice the trend of wanting to digitise things, but somewhat missed the point!