This is a story about how I ended up downloading every podcast. But it’s actually a little more than that.
I have a reputation/name as a historian now, and that’s nice, but I’m primarily a collector. I have an innate need to put things with other things like it and end up with a large set of like things. I do it everywhere and in a whole range of ways, and have done it since I was very young. I don’t really discriminate too much about what I like to collect, although I suppose it leans in the direction of information or unusual subcultures. What happened and continues to happen is that in pulling together these collections, I discover patterns and themes that reveals things far beyond the mere collection itself, and I draw on those themes to write or speak about. It’s like enjoying bike-riding and you bike-ride so much you discover how towns are laid out and roads are planned, simply from the mass of places you’ve ridden your bike. A tangental, but important and ultimately vital set of learning.
When putting together a collection of any sort, there is a vital but most-unrewarding portion of the process in the beginning. You start putting like things together, begin assembling them in a rough fashion or order, and are spending some significant amount of time doing so. Depending on the nature of the collecting, you might find that you lose a day or days to it, at the end of which you’ve only increased your collection minimally. Additionally, there’s very little difference between a beginning collection and a trash pile. A lot of people have trash piles that could be collections if they cared about them, but the trash pile is the cast-off shell to them, not the fruit. It is also very difficult to explain to people why you think something needs to be collected in the first place, and so you have the worst of all worlds: a small, non-comprehensive collection of something that you know others have done better and which will never have “it all”, which is taking a lot of your time to put together. This is where most people move on, and put stuff into the electronic or physical trash can, delighted their worthless proto-collection has been set aside to make space for more important things in their world. This once expressed itself in things like piles of magazines, sets of carefully arranged postal stamps, or small piles of rocks representing various minerals and non-precious gems. Now it expresses itself in piles of printouts, files, manuals and hard drives.
About once a month I get a tragic, sad letter from someone who threw away their BBS lives a year or multiple years ago, who regret it heavily now that they see my collection and the gaps they could have filled. These are not enjoyable letters to get. But it’s quite understandable why they did so. There was a definite physical heft to the collection, but no value as they saw it.
(For the record, if you have a collection of BBS material, whether it be printouts, old parts, or archives of files, I will take it, no questions asked.)
So one day I looked at Podcasts. I liked some aspects of them, so I am downloading all of them. Every one. I am going back and swiping older ones as I can find them, but I’m still in the process of getting every single one, so it’s taking some time. I have them in languages I’ve never spoken, and I have listened to less than one tenth of one percent of them. At last count I’m at 75 gigabytes of podcasts which works out to roughly 7,500 individual files. I suspect there are doubles and many missed files, but we’ll see if that comes with time.
I’ll take a moment to describe how I am doing this. Obviously, I need some space to store all these podcasts, but space, these days, is very cheap. I watch sites that provide specials for hardware, and can purchase a 250 gigabyte hard drive for $100. It’s a drive type that is prone to failure, so I buy two. At home, I run these drives on USB2 enclosures, on two separate machines, and I use a program called rsync to keep them synchronized. I download podcasts using a program called doppler, which has several advantages to its approach that are useful for archiving. I have the podcasts on a network drive, so I am not beholden to a specific machine to download the podcasts. I found very quickly that Doppler Radio didn’t check to see if you had pointed it to multiple copies of the same feeds (it assumes you’re using such a small amount of feeds, that you would always notice the doubles yourself), so I wrote a perl script that yanked out doubles. This has held up for the time being, and while I don’t have firm numbers on how much disk space per day this process is taking, I’m not too worried about it.
While I’m here, I’ll give my own thoughts on the general medium of podcasting. I think the name is incredibly dumb. It sounds like the thing only works with iPods, which it does not. It sounds like you’re doing some sort of radio show and nothing else, when in fact it’s just a container for any data you choose to send along. And it sounds new and revolutionary, when it is anything but.
Podcasting certainly has its roots in zine culture, home-brew tapes, BBSes, carbon-copy SF fanzines, and telegraph. If that’s too high-minded and artsy-historian, then I could point to the direct event of the fad of “Push Technology” that infected a number of companies in 1998 through to 1999. Microsoft and Netscape both claimed that Push technology would change everything, and Pointcast tried to build a business on it. Really, it was all a fine idea, but the order of the day was to claim that not only was a good idea good, but it would actually turn dog poop into solid gold, so the actuality had issues with the (stock-driven) promises.
“What is this Blog thing?” my father asked me on the phone just a few days ago. Dad doesn’t buy into much, because life has taught him that everything’s one big massive scam with collusion by government and industry adding to the mess. Describing it to my dad, as I’ve learned over the years, requires about two paragraphs at most before it’s obvious I’m just being long-winded. So I basically said this (and I did, actually, say this; I am not playing semantic or dramatic games):
“Every once in a while, a group of people with a lot of free time who talk too much band together and take over an already-existing hobby, task or medium. In doing so, they invent a whole set of language to describe the already-existent thing they do, so it sounds like it’s really new and neat. They tend to ignore what’s before them, which is bad, but they also cause this critical mass where they force money and interest in the thing, which is good. The thing becomes easier and better put together to help these people get what they want out of it, which is to be really cool or make a lot of money.”
“So blogs are diaries that are online, where people talk about themselves and other people can read them and tell them how cool or uncool they are.”
Obviously the medium of blogs has a depth or meaning far beyond this, but I think that nails a lot of it, for the purposes of a quick explanation to my father when in fact he was wondering when my documentary was going to be finished. (The answer is, I’m working very hard on it.)
For the record, I am not very fond of the word “blog” at all, but the online and offline worlds are littered and choked with etymolgical abortions that grate and dismay, so there’s no sense in crying about it or trying to turn the tide. I’ll stick with “Audio Diaries” in ten years after it all dies down.
So again. Why am I collecting tens of gigabytes of podcasts, when I don’t seem to have an overreaching awe and admiration of them? Because life has taught me several facts about history and the nature of collecting which tell my gut instincts to go after all of them anyway. I gave a speech about this in 2004 called “Saving Digital History: A Quick and Dirty Guide”, but I’ll summarize quickly.
The hardest single part of analyzing history is to be at the historical event when it happens. You could be very good at knowing everything about Lincoln’s assassination, but the best information all flows from being at the event when it happened in the theatre, not reading second or third-hand accounts, or finding cribbed trial notes or anything else. But obviously, it is most difficult to travel back in time and be there.
Similarly, it is very hard to tell what in the present day will have historical significance. There’s some easy, large targets like major political events or spectacular trials, but sometimes it’s just dumb luck, having a camera or a good memory for facts, and being at the right place at the right time. Sometimes, there’s actually no historical significance but the artistry around recounting the event gives it historical significance. (The Woodstock concert/Aquarian Exposition of 1969 comes to mind.) And sometimes it’s merely a case that, looking back, you find that something has an entire other meaning than anybody associated with it could ever have imagined.
Such I think it will be with Podcasts. They are, essentially, a few people (not more than 1500 at any given time) who are recording their voices or music collections into compressed music files and then making them available for distribution. The fact that the clients for getting these music files are geared towards use-and-discard broadcasting models is irrelevant to me. What, instead, that I focus on is that there are entire swaths of life being recorded by these folks: their accents, their way of phrasing things, their lives, pieces of the world around them, who they know and knew, and how seminal events cut across all these geographic and personal boundaries.
The example I like to give (and I’ve done it a lot, just not in writing) is a hypothetical Letter to Home. Imagine a Civil-War era soldier writing home to his wife to tell her how things are. He might tell her how they’re very cold and unhappy but that the war might be over soon, and that he misses her very much and they should think about getting some more cows. Pretty straightforward stuff, and likely, to someone of the time, to be a rather boring or at least unremarkable letter.
Time changes its value. Obviously Civil War-era letters gain some amount of value by merely being over 100 years old, but beyond that the letter itself could reveal facts or insight that were never thought of at the time when the letter was collected. For example, the soldier might mention being in a specific field which will tell when the armies reached a certain point in a battle, different than previously thought. Maybe that soldier used a word or term that was coming into vogue at the time and helps language specialists trace the spread of that term through the US.
Or maybe, just maybe, that letter contains a watermark showing that it was manufactured by a company that claimed it never sold provisions to the “other side” during the war.
The point is, you can’t know. There’s so much information in the nature of the spoken voice and what the spoken voice is speaking of at the time, that it has contextual meanings that might come out months or years down the line. When combined with the times that they were recorded or the location of the speaker, you end up with a whole host of insight that comes up from your collection.
There are a number of other factors which will also assist me in collecting, most of which I pull from my experience collecting other such from-the-ground works. First of all, the number of day-to-day, consistently outputting podcasts will be very low. Like any interesting medium with a barrier to entry involving time or effort, the novelty wears off and the person stops doing the project. This turns it from an ongoing concern into an exhibit, and exhibits are very easy to collect. Another point is that the whole nature of this particular medium is that people are doing all the hard work themselves, that is, generating the content and ensuring its distribution through directories and clients. That means that I just have to keep setting my clients to the widest swath possible, open up every filter, and make sure the disk drives work, and 95 percent of my effort is automatic. When I have time, I might find more contextual information about each feed, but otherwise, even just having it all in one place is good for now. Obviously I have a lot of other things on my plate, but in a given day, I do basically zero work towards collecting, so it’s not a strain.
Where will this go? I don’t know. I don’t see there being a podcasts.textfiles.com and I’m certainly not looking to start a business as a podcast respository. But libraries and collections out there, some of them really amazing, were started because someone said “Why throw that out? I’ll put it away with the others.” and so it began.
So it begins.
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