Our disappearing life

Yesterday, Netflix announced that it will begin to offer a lower-priced package for people who would rather stream movies than get a DVD in the mail. It’s big news in tech circles today and judging by the number of blogs I’ve read today, people are switching their plans without giving it a thought.

I, however, did.

Netflix’s announcement has spawned another panic attack that my family’s analog — and now, digital — history is disappearing in a hurry and I probably shouldn’t put off saving it any longer. But save it… to what?

Over the weekend, I crawled into the space under the stairs to get the Christmas tree and decorations (the earliest I’ve ever done that so I’m not completely losing the non-procrastinator war) and stumbled across this:

It’s a Super 8 mm movie projector, still apparently in good shape after 20+ years of no use. Inside was this treasure:

A take-up reel (this was once an “every day expression”), a rusty shoe horn (beats me, but I think I’ve used the projector more recently than the shoe horn) and the only roll of film I ever shot of my oldest son, on his first days home from the hospital more than 25 years ago.

What would you do now? That’s exactly what I did.

Unless I get around to finding some place that will convert Super 8mm film to digital, that history is gone. Forever. When I was growing up, my parents had a huge drawer of these films, documenting the lives of me and my four brothers and sisters. As far as I know, that’s all gone now, too.

My house is full of disappearing history. In closets and cabinets all over the house, there are VHS cassettes — unindexed — occupying space. I didn’t shoot a lot of video of the kids — I didn’t want to be that guy — but what little I shot is around here somewhere.


And if I ever find it, this is the last remaining VHS player in the house: the old TV.


Another one died a month or so ago and has left us permanently. When this one goes, all that VHS history probably goes too, unless I get around to transferring it to another media — perhaps DVD. Underneath the TV is a DVD player we bought when VHS started to disappear.

This week, an old desktop PC which has most of my digital images started dying. Of all the important data that’s on it, my first action was to save the pictures — our history. I burned them all onto a DVD.

And that will work fine, until DVD players disappear too. That will probably happen in my house, because last month we bought this:


It’s a home-entertainment system that connects to the Internet and allows us to stream video. No DVDs necessary. This is why Netflix did what it did yesterday. And this is why all the other media in the house is nearly obsolete.

I’m not recommending we go back to the old days. But as technology moves along at an ever-increasing pace, it makes it difficult for us to preserve our visual histories. Maybe today you’ll upload your images to Picassa, or a blog, or Flickr, or Facebook, or leave them on your phone, not thinking that there’s no guarantee Picassa, your blog, or Flickr, or Facebook, or your phone technology will be there 30 years from now, any more than there was a guarantee that my movie projector would work today. Maybe that doesn’t matter to you now, but it’ll matter in 30 years. Trust me on this.

Now here’s the odd part: Of all the technology that exists and has existed to preserve our histories, this is still the one that seems to work the best over time in my house: a shoebox.


Beat that Netflix.

  • Plenty of local businesses can convert 8mm film to DVD. One of them is http://www.token.com

  • Heather

    Bob, my dad has been having 8mm converted to dvd, but it’s not the same without the projector noise…

  • The Big Dog

    Bob, congratulations on finding the lost treasure, I hope you can view it soon. I was just telling the kids about how we used to go to the movies to watch a movie, and there was only one choice for the whole week. My teenage daughter asked if I sat on the rock or the wooden log?

  • Advancing tech is seen as a universal good in our world, but this declaration is in itself the real problem.

    There is a cost to constant improvement – a cost in completely losing our grounding as a culture and as people.

    This downside is easy enough to avoid – but impossible to avoid if we insist that technology is more important than people or culture.

    You illustrated it personally and perfectly. I hope you can find ways to keep the treasures alive.

  • My favorite story about saving treasures…

    My wife and I were cleaning out her dads place for us to tear down and rebuild in 2004. He and his wife purchased the place in 1956, and after she passed away in the ’70s, it was up to him to keep the place tidy, which didn’t happen. He was a pack rat! It took me months to clean out the huge basement room they built in the ’60s. As I reached the last corner, there was an old rotting cabinet that had probably been his parents, and not touched since the late ’60s. Of the drawers I could open, there was nothing of value, and as I said, it was rotting anyway, so I literally threw it on top of the junk pile and walked away. A hour later or so, I was back to throw more junk on the pile, I saw this cabinet laying on the pile, with a drawer that opened with the fall apparently. In it were several nicely preserved collections of pictures from his parents! Some were from early in the 20th century and their childhood.

    I did some research as we were trying to figure out what to do with these pictures, and try to work with her dad as we were cataloging them. Even digital formats can deteriorate, so many suggested to me to be sure print and store the pictures as best we can. We can’t save everything, which is why I urge my wife to scrapbook as best she can, as I think it will be those things that our children will treasure as we pass these things on… as well as some old harddrives and DVDs.

  • Jim Hartmann

    Nice story and pictures. A number of years ago we transferred 8mm to vhs. Now it’s probably time to go back to those 8mm and go to digital. 35mm negatives too, those can be scanned with a pretty inexpensive device.

  • GregS

    “Unless I get around to finding some place that will convert Super 8mm film to digital, that history is gone.”

    You have a few options today, but what about twenty years from now?

    Hmmmm, sounds like a great service project for The Minnesota History Center. Imagine, for a small fee, they would convert your old films and CD’s (remember them?) and in the process the History Center would capture the image for future generations.

  • bsimon

    “sounds like a great service project for The Minnesota History Center. Imagine, for a small fee, they would convert your old films and CD’s (remember them?) and in the process the History Center would capture the image for future generations.”

    That is a really interesting idea.


  • Kim E

    This is actually something I worry about sometimes (and I grew up in the VHS/cassette tape era). 1000 years from now when humans are digging up stuff from year 2010, all they will find are some CD’s and hard drives full of information and culture and history, but they won’t have any way to access this info. I suppose the same thing could be said about papyrus and vellum scrolls written in “dead” languages. Maybe there is no perfect solution.

    I remember my dad telling me when I was younger about his grandparents. They had boxes of great old pictures, but they didn’t know any of the people or places in the pictures. This stuck with me over the years. Now, I try to print off as many digital pics into hard copies as I can and write the date, place, and people on the backs as soon as I can. I still keep all the digital copies on a flash drive, but what happens when that flash drive becomes obsolete? I figure the hard copy pictures will be what lasts through all the technology changes.

  • Jdanger

    Another great place to get old film transferred (among other things) is……

    Astound Video

  • Bob Collins

    // and I grew up in the VHS/cassette tape era).

    Oh, thanks for reminding me. Our wedding ceremony is on a cassette. Somewhere. We haven’t had a cassette recorder in the house for years to play it back on.

  • Angie

    Streaming is fine and I do it. But the selection is not that good if you want new stuff…for $8 a month with few new choices? Not that great really.