Digital Preservation

: The Importance of Preserving Digital Art and Media

Title image for digital preservation blog with computer and floppy discs
The Art of Digital Preservation

In a world where technology is constantly evolving, it’s tempting to get swept up in the marketing hype and buy into the latest and in marketing speak, the greatest technologies. But do you really need the latest technology for everything that you do and is there a case to make sure you maintain some of that older technology as a means of digital preservation?

This Week…

This week, we discover some of the best ways to continue using and accessing your old technology and your collection of files and artworks, likely built up over decades. We also take a look at the ethics of digital preservation, the techniques and skills we need to preserve what we do today, and begin to understand why we continue to have such a reliance on using and revisiting outdated equipment.

Vintage technology disc drives, painting by Mark Taylor
Drive Talkin by Mark Taylor - One of my latest artworks. Each element was individually hand drawn and painted, my usual over the top attention to detail because I love creating this stuff! Who knows, I might be the first artist to have ever painted an RJ45 cable next to a Zip Drive.

We rely on technology…

Whenever we head to the stores to pick up the latest technology, the sales and marketing people will use every excuse in the book to upsell us on the promise of greater battery life, a bit more zip and a little more zap, but as an artist, there are times when old technology is vital to the process of creating our work.

Artists frequently have a need to rely on technology, whether it’s to market and sell our work, create it, or write up those pesky bio’s that we all seem to avoid writing and rarely ever revisit. We often use technology to store and preserve our work or research our subject matter, to order new supplies, or engage with social media or just to run our business and our lives.

Technology today is just as embedded in the art process as the paintbrush. It’s an essential tool and often one of the most expensive tools that we have, and it frequently needs to be fed with upgrades and updates that will either cost us in terms of money, time, or both.

Yet there are times when we have a need to revisit older technologies, whether that technology is an old school film camera because we need that particular grainy look, or whether it’s to revisit files stored on that Zip Drive we invested in way back in the 90s. The problem is that old isn’t always exactly compatible with new and that can be problematic if you are looking for a specific aesthetic or you need to go back and find a particular file.

Now I’ve bought that shiny new thing, the first thing I need to do right after I’ve finished this thing and that thing, is to make sure I transfer my old files from my old thing over to the shiny new format. I think most of us decided to put our older technology in the attic and we never did quite get around to transferring the old files to new systems, so the ability to go back and revisit old technology is often a necessity today rather than being only a nostalgic trip back to the past.

The Cloud Will Burst…

Preservation of old and legacy digital files is challenging and you have to creatively think about how you might hang on to those old files. Old technology is mostly incompatible with new technology, but this isn’t simply an issue that blights the preservation of the past, we’re now beginning to see history repeating itself and we might just be sleepwalking into an even bigger problem for the future.

The digital dream we have been sold over the past decade is to move whatever we can into the cloud, and most cloud services are now badged as being live services which carry ongoing subscription costs so that we can continue to access our data. We have been sold the benefits of cloud first for at least the past five years and over the past couple of years we have been all in.

The pay to play monetisation model could become a problem if you’re no longer willing or able to pay for access, but a greater problem facing the new digital world, is that many of these live services only remain live while they are financially viable. You might want to take pause and let that sink in for a moment, it’s not just your ability or willingness to pay, it’s the collective ability and willingness and the willingness of the live service to continue.

If you are looking to preserve your modern day files or even digital purchases, there really are no guarantees that you will be able to for the long-term if you are completely reliant on a live service. With old technology the problem today might be around keeping the technology alive or transferring files to a new device, but with modern day cloud and live services, the problem is that whatever you purchased or stored today, whatever you thought you had digitally preserved, is only ever going to be accessible while the service you pay for continues to have skin in the game. That doesn’t mean that your data ceases to exist but it does mean that you will no longer have the ability to access it.

Abstract artwork in neon colours by Mark Taylor
Planetary Target by Mark Taylor - One of my recent abstracts inspired by the 1980s with a focus on a cloud based future.

Live services are only live while they’re profitable and already this year, we’ve seen very new and very young services such as Google’s Stadia shut down, and e-stores from the likes of Nintendo and Sony are no longer available on their older devices. This means that whatever you purchased in the past, unless you have already downloaded it to some kind of physical storage will no longer be accessible, and if you have downloaded the file, there is no way to update it.

Unlike that Zip drive from 1999, there’s very little hope that you can ever retrieve information from current or previous cloud services if those services no longer exist and again, there’s a question around whether your data continues to exist.

For people like me who take the preservation of old technology and files, probably way too seriously, old non-cloud based technology and physical media will always have an advantage. If you are saving your digital artwork in the cloud you really ought to be thinking about preservation of those files in the future and have at least some sort of plan to retrieve those files and move them somewhere else should the live cloud service you subscribe to ever ceases to exist.

We were sold a digital promise…

Digital preservation isn’t just a present day problem with shuttered cloud services, we were once sold the promise of a digital future that would enable us to forever retrieve our files and our memories in the form of low resolution photographs from our early-era digital cameras by using physical media such as CD ROMS. Video gamers and music fans have been pushed towards the digital download, but at best, it’s a model based on Blockbuster. You could say that at best, you’re not really buying anything, you’re simply renting it only while the store front and storage plan remain open.

At least with physical media we only had to worry about rot…

The promise of a lifetime digital archive of our best moments should have come packaged with a huge caveat, the discs will do exactly what it says on the tin so long as you continued to keep them in museum like temperature controlled environments and never touched them. No one ever mentioned that the coating of a CD or CD ROM would oxidise or that poor quality control wouldn’t pick up on the use of cheap solvents and materials used to provide a ten pack of blank CDs for the price of a candy bar.

Today, we know that those indestructible, unless scratched, CD ROMS are prone to disc rot. Yes, they still look shiny, you looked after them and kept them in their plastic Jewel case, but that doesn’t matter. Over time, the protective layer of the disc which is made from a layer of thin aluminium or other metals, begins to break down due to temperature and humidity changes. Most that exist today are either in boxes in the garage or the attic and both of those locations are hardly conducive to preservation.

Another big problem for those of us who still rely on using old technology is leakage. Either the battery in the device leaks over time or the circuit board of the device begins to oxidise and corrode. Plastics and rubbers break down and essentially turn to mush, frequently leaving behind a sticky residue that takes great skill and a bottle of isopropyl to remove, often over a period of weeks or months. Once these materials begin to break down, there’s very little you can do to stop the rot, although you can slow it down which will give you a little more time to properly figure something more permanent out.

As much as I love old technology and however much I seem to dedicate my life to preserving it, collecting it and using it, it can be a character building test at times when all you need to do is find that one file from 1996 and display it on a modern day PC.

Regular readers will know that I am a huge fan of old technology, my collection includes everything from the first 8-bit home computers to a collection of computer and technology magazines from the 80s right the way through to the present day. I don’t just collect vintage computers either, if it’s 80s or 90s technology of any description I’m all in, often these devices that have since been forgotten were the very foundations of everything we take for granted today.

Preservation is something I am way more focussed on today than I was back in the 90s, but to do preservation properly means that you have to invest so much time in making sure that you’re not introducing new factors that could accelerate the breakdown of the media even further. In my mind, there is no difference between the issues we face as artists with papers containing acids and the digital media which often contained similar substances.

painting of a laserdisc player by Mark Taylor
Laser Disc by Mark Taylor - Had so much fun creating this and then I spent almost a week painting a cardboard texture because it looks cool! No arty reasons other than me geek.

As an artist who has made a career out of creating works inspired by the 70s, 80s, and 90s, with many, many landscape works thrown in to reflect my love of the outdoors, I still use old technology almost every day. It’s critical to get that certain look for some of the commissions I take on, but it also serves the purpose of preserving the technology and providing a mechanism to retain even some of my oldest digital works.

Is it challenging? At times, absolutely, but the real frustration is often not keeping things working, but transferring old data to new systems and often, completely new and incompatible formats. Is it worth it, absolutely, I would recommend everyone immediately set up an archaeological expedition to the attic.

It’s also worth keeping those old skills that you might have already started to forget about. Technology is a lot like fashion, it’s cyclical, that’s why we’re seeing a resurgence in people clambering for the distraction free Walkman’s and authors are keen to get their hands on early internet-free word processors.

I Do Modern Stuff Too…

I’m not suggesting that anyone abandons new technology to replace it and completely rely on something that’s a few decades or even older, mostly we need to keep on top of the trends not just for the supposedly better battery life, but because most of what we do these days means that you have to have the latest operating systems and security patches. If I need to apply for government issued paperwork or do my banking online, I have to use an app or the latest browser which will often only work if I have the latest operating system and therefore, the latest device to run it on.

As I have moved from creating art using more traditional mediums and transitioned to creating primarily digital work, that means I’m heavily invested in the eco-systems of the big tech giants. Yet, because of the subject matter and the huge amount of research I like to do to accompany every single retro artwork I create, I still have a need to plug in a 40-year old home computer from time to time. It might be when I create authentic old school pixel art, but sometimes, it’s because the old technology lets me do things faster and without any distractions.

We shouldn’t throw away our old technology…

Call me an hoarder, I think most people do when they see my collection, but there is good reason to hold on to your old technology. Not least that at some point in the future it will officially celebrate its turning retro birthday and will inevitably become at least as valuable as the price you originally paid for it, well in most cases, but also because there could be a time when the files you have stored on the device might once again be needed. There are other reasons that you might not consider at the time you make the decision to either sell it, dispose of it or give it away.

Because you have personal data stored on it…

There are more than a couple of reasons for not just throwing out old technology. If you have any personal data stored on it even if you can’t access it, that doesn’t mean someone else can’t access it. That password you used for Myspace which you still use today is the digital equivalent of your house keys, your bank balance, and probably your entire modern day online life. If you have used technology for a while, I can almost guarantee that your passwords haven’t evolved quite as quickly as the devices you are using them on.

Because, the environment…

There’s an environmental problem facing humanity that’s not being helped by our appetite for bigger and better. We’re all guilty of this even unconsciously, and virtue signalling by displaying a save the planet poster and doing little else shows just ironic humans can be. Trust me when I tell you that there are many people who will find some use from a forty year old computer, you just think there’s very little benefit in going there because up to date and shiny is suddenly the new best thing.

Your memories are stored within the silicon…

You early memories might only exist on the hard drive attached to the Windows 3.1 PC gathering dust in your attic. Wouldn’t it be great to dig out those very first digital photos taken on your very first low-pixel digital camera that you were once so proud to own?

It’s your artistic legacy…

As an artist, your early work is often some of your best work, although we never realise this until years later when we have become less free in our craft. After years of being influenced by thousands of other artists and seeing our skills leap to higher levels, often our early works provide a much better insight into what originally ushered us into our work. Going back and revisiting my older works reminds me of everything that made me want an art career in the first place.

You might not think that your early work is to the standard you meet today, but that’s kind of the point. How else can you measure your own progress? It’s also worth bearing in mind that in some cases, those earliest works could become increasingly desired and valuable to collectors. I recently sold a work I created in 1992 and am now curating a collection of works I produced in the mid-90s with the intention of recreating them with modern tools.

The technology could be more valuable than you think…

You have old technology gathering dust in the attic but it’s still somehow in the original box, well, given the huge increase in the number of people now getting into the retro collecting hobby that original iPhone, old Motorola 8800, Tandy TRS-80 or if you’re really lucky, any early Apple computer that you might have taking up space, could be worth much more than you think. You might want to think about getting that kind of technology serviced and maybe even insured or gift it to my backlog of technology that I’m slowly working on bringing back to life!

goldfish in astronaut helmet worn by a cat
Galactic Feline Goldfish by Mark Taylor - I wanted to create something different and then I was asked to create a commission to create something different. The galaxy works in mysterious ways!

Fixer Upper…

I touched on some of the technical problems that you will often find with old equipment earlier, gadgets can be prone to all sorts of environmental factors that compromise the integrity of the electronics and the cases or the data. But it’s worth remembering that at one time, humans built things to last and even as recently as the 1990s, we still had manufacturers that were proud of the products they put onto the market and many of them hadn’t as yet contemplated outsourcing manufacturing to the cheapest mass production facility where quality assurance and standards can only be described as almost non-existent.

The issue we face today is that paying a premium price for new technology is no guarantee that the goods are going to be premium quality. I’m convinced that goods are solely designed to be replaced at exactly one day after the warranty expires and even relying on big brands doesn’t change this, many of the brands we knew and trusted in the past have been wound down and consumed into mass manufacturing operations that produce generic products with those old but well known once-premium labels and brands written on them.

That said, there are plenty of examples where the modern day equivalent is built with better quality components but that’s usually as a result of the components being refined over the years to become more reliable, less expensive or both. There are plenty of examples where the old equipment was never as reliable as we remember it, but there are plenty of examples where the old technology has been proven to outlast anything built today.

The good news is that most of the old technology that you might have sitting in the attic that hasn’t seen a power source in three decades can be made to function just as, or better than it did when you refurbish it with modern replacement components.

It’s also surprising at just how often new old stock comes up for sale on market places such as eBay. Often it will have been stored away and remained untouched and it’s not always expensive. Today, I frequently purchase floppy discs for around the same price I paid for them when they were being used by everyone.

I still own working Commodore Amiga computers, I use them frequently to create artworks with applications such as Delux Paint, the original precursor to Photoshop and produced by Electronic Arts who are better known for creating Madden and FIFA video games today. There’s no comparison between Delux Paint and Photoshop, Delux Paint didn’t have layers and had almost none of the functionality that Photoshop offers today, but it does have the ability to create truly authentic pixel art that is almost impossible to replicate on modern day equipment or applications and without Delux Paint, I’m not sure that we would even have Photoshop today.

Linear abstract artwork by Mark Taylor
Into the Blue by Mark Taylor - I originally created a version of this in 1993 on the Commodore Amiga. The new file was created using Procreate on an M2 iPad Pro with refinements created within Photoshop. All hand drawn with a stylus. If you buy a print of this, consider the acrylic block because those colours really pop with some backlighting!

Most of yesterdays forgotten technology can be brought back to life to provide many more years of use, you can often find modern replacement components if you do have to carry out some first aid, and in some cases you can find components such as FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) chips that can become a direct hardware level surrogate which can reliably act as an old computer or device by replicating the old technology directly on-board the chip.

One thing I would always recommend is to replace older power supplies with modern ones. There are a lot of manufacturers who can still supply a power supply that has been built within modern day safety regulations, and using a new power supply means that you are less likely to find other issues when you power on an older device.

If you do use old power supplies, always check the plug. Wires work loose over the years and these could present a fire risk, for the sake of a few minutes it could save a major headache. It’s also worth checking online forums including platforms such as Reddit. If you are using the old equipment there will almost certainly be a community of people doing the same thing and they will have documented most of the issues that they will have found when powering it up for the first time in decades.

Speaking Old Languages…

There are a heap of reasons why we still like to use old technologies instead of shiny new technologies today. More often than not it comes down to it being a nostalgic anchor to the past, but there are practical reasons too, and the use of old technology in modern businesses is much more widespread than you might think. Alongside the technology of yesterday, there are plenty of good reasons to keep popular past programming languages alive and if you are serious about preservation of past technology and formats, the old programming languages are going to be incredibly useful but also those old programming languages are becoming incredibly useful in supporting businesses that rely on legacy systems.

Being what some might call a dinosaur, I still continue to use my old technology to produce authentic pixel art and to preserve my older works but also because I still have a need to use some legacy software that has never been bettered in the years since it was originally released, and more often, when modern day replacements just haven’t been created, and I’m not alone.

In the past year I have been asked so many times to help keep legacy systems up to date, or as up to date as they can be. There are examples of old Atari computers being used to manage booking systems for a camping site, and the financial industry still utilise old programming languages such as COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), which was first introduced in 1959 to run critical business systems such as payroll and billing.

Fortran is still used in the scientific sector particularly in fields such as physics, chemistry, and geology.  C and C++ are two programming languages that have been around since the 1970s and are still widely used today. C is a general-purpose programming language that is used for system programming, embedded systems, and game development, among other things. C++ is an extension of C and is used for similar purposes as well as for developing large-scale applications, such as operating systems and video games.

Lisp is a very well matured programming language that was first developed in the late 1950s. It is still used today in many areas of artificial intelligence and machine learning as it has powerful features for manipulating and processing data. If there is one language that might need to become better supported in the future, I have a feeling that Lisp is on the list as AI continues its mission to take over the world.

Assembly language is a low-level programming language that has been around since the early days of computing. It is still used today in applications that require direct access to hardware, such as device drivers, embedded systems, and real-time systems, and it is critical within some industrial processes.

This is one of the legacy languages that I continue to use so I can create new applications on vintage home computers and it’s a really useful language to understand when working with emulation. It’s efficient and its ability to directly access hardware means that applications don’t have the overhead which is at a premium with old systems. It’s also a great way to become a more efficient programmer, a lost art that has meant that modern day applications use much more overhead and power to do some of the basic things you need to do when programming.

BASIC is another language still used in some educational settings as an introduction to teaching programming concepts. Its simplicity and ease of use make it a good choice for beginners who are just starting to learn programming. It is a language I have argued long and hard over in academic circles to be integrated more in school curriculums as it is one of the fundamental building blocks that underpins every modern language that has emerged since.

painting of a retro MP3 player by Mark Taylor
I Want My MP3 by Mark Taylor - The original MP3 Players had batteries that could be replaced, held charge for days, and were indestructible. That's progress I guess... Once again, this is all hand drawn and painted using a stylus. Total creation time was around 9 hours.

The Old Refuses to Speak to the New…

Bringing old technology back to life is one thing, there is very little that can’t be repaired or refreshed these days with varying degrees of effort, but getting it to talk to modern equipment is possibly going to be the most challenging task you will have to overcome.

Independent retailers are going to be your best bet in finding old mediums, if you go into a big box chain store it’s unlikely the staff will have enough knowledge or experience to help you figure out what you need to do to transfer old files or replace components.

With a growing trend towards revisiting older technologies, there are now plenty of small home based businesses and enterprises that have created entire micro-industries in creating the components, cables and mediums that you need to make the old talk to the new, and a lot of one time hobbyists in the vintage technology space have come up with really useful inventions that have turned their hobbies into fully fledged international businesses.

There are good reasons to keep a cable drawer…

That tangled mess of cables in that one drawer that you never open is worth maintaining. If you want to revisit old technology, replacing old cables can be one of the biggest expenses. I recently came across a cable that allowed you to connect an old games console to a composite connection on the TV. You could have picked these up for a few pounds or dollars even a couple of years ago, the price attached to the one I saw in a retailer recently was £150 or $187 US because everyone had a clear out and most of these cable were thrown away.

If you plan on using any kind of vintage technology then it’s worth holding on to any cables that you do have. The only cable I would say is safe to throw away would be the old Apple 30-pin connector, but if you have an original iPhone, even that cable could add to the already high value that the original iPhones attract.

USB cables, whether they are the mini, micro, or the lesser used Micro-B cables will be useful for connecting video cameras from the early millennium years. Display port cables can still handle resolutions up to 8K, so they’re worth holding on to too, and whilst so many people threw their VGA monitor cables away, these are becoming increasingly valuable as retro collectors seek out those huge CRT monitors that we all had before the days of LCD panels.

CRT TVs and monitors are becoming more difficult to find in working condition, yet the demand for these amongst the retro community has never been higher. If you have an old video camera or Video Cassette Recorder, CRT TVs are still going to be your best bet if you plan on transferring old video cassettes to a new format.

I can see CRTs becoming the tech sectors equivalent to mining gold and it pains me to admit that I don’t think we will ever see a manufacturer start making them again. We might remember them as having a fuzzy picture but if you plan to use old technology, the picture you get from a CRT TV or monitor is significantly better than you will ever get from the latest 8K Ultra everything flat screen TV. Old technology was designed to be used with CRTs and whilst you can source new cables and adapters to convert old signals to newer HDMI standards that will work on modern TVs and monitors, the output even if it is upscaled to the new resolution will be generally pretty poor in comparison to the vibrancy of an original CRT.

There are companies, mostly in China that purport to manufacture new CRT TVs, but most of them are more likely to just be taking old discarded tubes out of TVs originally destined for landfill or recycling. The tubes are placed into new plastic cases which means that the quality will be questionable and will never be consistent between TVs. Some might already have screen burn making them less than useful, and I would be nervous about plugging in technology that doesn’t have to pass the rigorous electrical standards that we have in place today.

Even if the technology is labelled with safety markings, that doesn’t always mean that the technology has passed any safety certifications. Entire industries have been set up in the East to recreate authentic looking electrical safety labels, product labels and product brand badges to feed a market of fakes. Replacement products are then badged and sold in Western countries, usually online and shipped from China with scant regard to safety.

No one that I’m aware of has the current capability to mass produce CRT TVs for the domestic market today. That said, there are specialist vacuum tube manufacturers who continue to innovate the technology for use in industrial applications and aviation, but it would take an insane amount of work to bring back domestic CRT TVs, and the public would need to buy back into the technology more widely.

There is very little doubt in my mind that there is still a market for CRT TVs, and I’m certain if a manufacturer created a new CRT TV it would sell in enough volume within retro and vintage collector circles to make it worth their while, but it is an expensive technology and that would no doubt be reflected in the price they would need to charge.

One of the stand out features of CRT technology and indeed, even the early flat panel LCD displays was always the amount of connectivity that they had which allowed you to connect all sorts of devices. Today, we’re lucky if we get 3 HDMI sockets, so we often find ourselves buying a third-party HDMI splitter to accommodate all of the devices we need to connect to any modern display.

Connectivity with modern day equipment is often sparse in order to keep the costs down and there’s an assumption made by many manufacturers that we would never need to have legacy connections on new equipment, but that hasn’t stopped a huge market emerging to provide all sorts of legacy connections via various cables, dongles and hubs. I checked one high street retailer recently and asked if they had a TV with more than 3-HDMI sockets and out of more than two dozen TVs on display, only one of them had more than four HDMI connectors with most only having three. Even when using modern day technology, three HDMI connectors is going to prove to be challenging for most people.

vintage car stereo players artwork by Mark Taylor
Retro Car Radio by Mark Taylor - Each of these radios and the speakers were hand drawn and painted using a stylus on an M2 iPad Pro. The individual works were then assembled in a large format work. The original and prints show the detail of the plastics, each asset took an average of 10-hours of work. A labour of love or preservation of forgotten technology?

The Data Problem…

If you think that preserving or protecting your old personal data that exists on all of these old hard drives, CD ROMS, and USB sticks is a challenge, you might want to consider how much more of a challenge it will be in the future when you need to preserve the data from a modern day SSD drive for example.

We will be facing a real crisis within the next decade or so when it comes to either preserving or deleting data that we produce today. We currently have things like end to end encryption, and modern PCs and laptops come with SSDs rather than the hard discs of the past. This presents a problem in that the data on them isn’t easy to completely destroy and in some cases, it’s no possible at all.

The firmware on a modern SSD (Solid State Drive) is designed to prevent sectors of the drive from being written over. This means that the data is still present and if someone has some motivation and the right tools, they will be able to recover it. We might also want to preserve that data, so the challenges we face today in getting the old to speak to the new are going to be exponentially harder because we will have to factor in the encryption.

This raises another question, what about all of the old technology that you have today that might have personal data on the drives. If you are thinking of selling your old technology, figuring out ways to retrieve your old data and permanently delete it is imperative. Bad players are actively seeking out auction websites and yard sales and buying old PCs, not because they are retro collectors looking for a way to retrieve their old files, but because they know that there will be a wealth of value in your old files, and on most hard drives, there will almost certainly be enough data for the bad player to create a duplicate of your identity.

I get gifted a lot of old technology but the one thing I am careful about is whenever I come across personal data. Even worse, should I ever stumble across corporate secrets if the technology originated from a business. Nowadays I only scour the systems for software that’s no longer available so it can be preserved and I skip around anything personal or commercial, mostly because if I find it and let the previous owner know, they will often have an expensive legal responsibility to do something about it which they wouldn’t thank me for.  

With any kind of data preservation there will always be a question around the ethics. Whether those ethical dilemmas stem from the potential to view personal or organisational data or whether it is the ethics of sourcing ROM files for use on emulators, ethics is a big question and the answers will often lead you into legally opaque areas. There could very well be an argument to preserve an old operating systems code base but what about preserving modern code that is freely available.

The counter to this is that we were once so poor at documentation and retention especially back in the 80s and 90s, that if it hadn’t been for software piracy we would have lost so many of the software titles that defined the early days of home computing. Today, it’s not uncommon to find a code dump of a popular software title from that era which is the only working example that exists. That’s not to condone any form of software piracy but we should be trying to find a solution to ensure what we have available today doesn’t go the same way.

I’ve often thought that the software industry should contribute to an independent global council for digital preservation, with developers ensuring that any code is archived for historic purposes and access to that code could then be legally controlled in the future. It would go some way to preserve the digital only downloads that we lose when an e-store closes, and the original authors could receive a royalty payment should the code ever be reused or accessed in the future. is attempting this in some way but it falls short in that there is no mandate for any developer or creator to think about preservation.

retro video camera from the year 2000 artwork by Mark Taylor
Video Y2K by Mark Taylor - These were awesome little video cameras. HD in the year 2000, built in USB connector meant no cables. Hand drawn, I reused the Planetary Target abstract I created because it perfectly sums up the period between the late 80s and early 2000s when home video was a thing that didn't need a cell phone.

Our Data Defines Us…

I suspect what we do today with our data will define us in about a hundred years and people will be asking what on earth we thought we were doing. We’ve only recently arrived at a point where we are beginning to really care about what happens to our data and the truth is, we haven’t really cared before this point and a lot of data that we wouldn’t want out there is already out in the wild. I think the saying goes, you can’t put toothpaste back in the tube.

So when we talk about preservation, it’s not just the old stuff that you need to be mindful of, preserving todays data will be exponentially more difficult in the coming years so it’s probably worth looking at backing up that data on physical mediums today. The issue here is that there are few, if any physical mediums that have the kind of storage capacity that most people would need in the modern day but you certainly need to have a data plan, even if you only have personal data to back up.

What do we need to preserve old files and formats?

Optical and Physical Media:

If you are of a certain vintage or you have ever used hardware of a certain vintage, there’s a good chance that you might have pondered how on earth would you even begin to transfer your old files so that they can be viewed or even used on a modern device.

Optical and physical media is still largely available, at least for now but it will only be a matter of time before our ability to utilise it for preservation begins to wane.

3.5 inch floppy drives never really went away. The 40+ year old technology has only recently been banned by the Japanese Government for use within its own offices, and as I said earlier, there are plenty of organisations and users who still rely on this old equipment to run their businesses. The point here is that it’s worth doing some homework first because the solution to do what you need to do is most likely already being used by an entire community of vintage technology and legacy users who have had maybe 40-years to figure this stuff out.

With floppy discs, it’s not always easy to read and preserve original files because the discs might have become corrupted. CD ROMS are rapidly going the same way and becoming more complicated to do anything with for very similar reasons. The biggest issue is that modern day devices don’t usually have the connectivity that you need to plug in old floppy drives, and I don’t think I’ve seen a PC in at least the last five years which includes an optical drive such as a CD ROM.

Optical CD ROM drives can still be purchased and rather usefully, some will externally connect to a USB port on your new PC. Rewritable CD ROM drives are also still available, although the media you purchase for them today is generally of a low quality.

Floppies are a different matter entirely, in part because the computer had to control when the drive would spin, when the arm would move and know exactly when and where to place the arm so that the computer could read the relevant data in the correct order. Modern USB connected 3.5 inch floppy drives will have limited function for the preservation of data if your data was created on anything other than a PC or IBM compatible, there are options here if you find that you need a drive from something that isn’t PC based, but most of these options will come with a very steep learning curve.

There are various ways to still read most of your floppy discs, although to read some formats will possibly require you to install some kind of emulator on your modern system. The file systems and the way files are constructed are very different these days and older computers such as the early 1980s home microcomputers rarely had any visual user interface, you communicated with the built in programming language such as BASIC or any of the others I outlined earlier. If you are backing up from older IBM compatibles and early PCs, then learning the basics of DOS (Disc Operating System) will be instrumental to any success you have with preservation.

The weight of sledgehammer that you need to crack this particular nut will vary between the complexity or simpleness of the original system you need to somehow replicate and the complexity of the modern day system you need the file to be transferred to. Thankfully, most emulators that run on PC or Mac, or even on single board computers such as the Raspberry Pi, will let you transfer old files with relative ease.

If you run an emulator on a Raspberry Pi, you can transfer files to and from the emulated system by connecting the Pi to the PC (or Mac) through file explorer and either Wi-Fi or via an ethernet cable. This does involve a small level of easy tinkering, and it usually just means connecting to your Raspberry Pi via it’s IP address over Wi-Fi.

There are plenty of YouTube tutorials that go through this and many will utilise the most likely emulators you will be using, and the emulators really are all much of a muchness in how they function. The difference between emulators is how well they emulate something on your new device and some emulators will always be better at replicating specific systems across all modern devices.

Once you know how to find the Pi on your wireless network, you can replace the Pi with almost any device and use the same method. If you prefer, you can use a network cable to do the same thing and it will likely be much faster at transferring any files.

Floppy discs often take a little more work. There are modern-day floppy disc drives available that connect to modern equipment via USB, but there are a couple of considerations that you need to be mindful of before attempting any type of transfer. Firstly, floppy discs are fragile and susceptible to breaking down due to environmental factors, and dust and dirt can cause mechanical issues with the drive and render it useless.

Before you get too excited and charge ahead, make sure you check every disc for visible signs of failure and especially look out for any part of the disc that has started to erode. If you need data from those there will be no way of guaranteeing its integrity or condition, and it’s usually only recommended if you have some experience of recovering data.

I regularly have to check 3.5 inch floppy discs because those are the discs where most of my early works had originally been saved. To clean them, I use a 3D printed 3.5 inch disc frame that has small pegs which hold the disc in place. They’re widely available on Etsy these days and they’re much cheaper than replacing a drive. A wheel is then inserted which allows you to turn the disc which can then be gently wiped with a cotton bud and a drop of isopropyl alcohol.

The above is the easy part of the great floppy challenge, the real challenge is when you need to utilise old drives which were built into home computers such as the Commodore Amiga and Atari ST. You have a few options here, in some cases you can source spares and occasionally you might come across new-old stock for replacement parts, but there is no guarantee that those parts will be available when you want them or where you need them to be delivered.

If you have an older computer such as an Atari ST or Amiga, the modern USB replacement 3.5 inch drives which can be picked up for around $25 US, and around £25 UK, might share the same disk size but they are completely different technologies. Modern discs (or as modern as a 3.5 inch disc can be) will be Double Sided, High Density, (DS/HD) but many of the older computers with built in drives such as the Amiga used a Double Sided, Double Density (DS/DD) and wrote in a completely different file format and required a different drive technology.

When this happens you might have to trigger your inner geek and go down the route of SD Card solutions that replicate floppy discs and floppy disc controllers of yesteryear, or you could utilise a Raspberry Pi Pico, a small $5 single board microcontroller which will then form the basis of a project to repurpose almost any 3.5 inch floppy drive. Arduino boards can also be found in some of these projects, but almost all of these will need some form of other hardware to be attached in the form of a HAT (hardware attached on top) or will need to be soldered to the original board.

HATs or whatever term is more relevant to your choice of single board computer (SBC) or microcontroller can be found which perform all sorts of functions. Some will allow you to utilise original 9-pin D-Type controllers such as those which were once used on older PCs and game consoles, others will allow you to connect an audio cassette player so that you can load files stored on audio or data cassettes into the emulator or core. Most of these additional devices are inexpensive, so before you spend significant money on rebuying all of your old cables and replacing old equipment, it might be worth considering whether a single board computer with a HAT device or even on its own will perform the task you need it to perform.

I’ve had some success in replicating non-PC 3.5 inch floppy discs using an SBC together with a modern USB floppy drive, other people have figured out 5.25 inch disc projects using the Pico, I’ve yet to meet anyone who has come up with a way of recreating the older 8-inch formats. My advice here is to seek out pre-built projects which come with support because some of these SBC focussed projects can be challenging if you’re not keen on navigating the initial learning curve.

Retro Auto artwork by Mark Taylor
Retro Auto by Mark Taylor - I filled my first car with speakers and only had a radio. I think 18 year olds in the 80s were all just like me!

Cassette Tape:

In the UK and Europe, disc drives were never as popular as they were in the USA during the days of 8-bit and 16-bit computers. This meant that while my US friends had become used to fast loads and floppies, most of us across the pond had to load and save our files using a very slow cassette tape that would work only when it worked which wasn’t all that often.

If you don’t have access to the original equipment, you have limited options to transfer cassette tape based files. My preference would be to go with an FPGA based device such as the Mister, but that’s going to be an expensive option although you can add a HAT that allows you to connect a cassette player to the Mister and there will be almost no difference in compatibility. Mostly, you will need to seek out SD Card based solutions but that won’t solve the problem of the file being on the cassette rather than on the device.

In some cases, files can be transferred from cassette and recreated as a digital file using a cassette player, a mobile phone that can listen to the audio, and an application. Most people who use this method use it to download tape files to emulators, usually using some kind of Android based device. If you are invested in the Apple eco-system, there’s nothing that I’m aware of, certainly through the official App Store that would allow you to do this.

A much easier way would be to invest in a modern cassette player with a USB port. These can be picked up for less than $50 US, £50 UK if you look around online, most come with some software that will enable you to backup your cassette based music collection, just don’t expect Dolby levels of sound quality. There’s no reason why these same devices couldn’t do the same thing with data so that the newly created digital data can be read by an emulator, but you will need to source some software for your PC or Mac that will convert the original analogue track into a file type that will be readable with your emulator.

Repurpose an old PC:

I remember a time when you could pick up a used vintage PC for little to no money at all, and most of the time people were happy to hand them over for free in return for taking them away. Not so today, a 1971 era Kenbak-1 will probably cost you in the region of $40,000 US, (only 50 were made), an Apple 1, has a current value of around $460,000 US, but even a basic X286 PC from the 90s is likely to be worth anywhere between $200 - $600, although you can find them cheaper depending on where you look, the condition they’re in, and any extra’s which may be included.

Retro collectors are currently buying up older PCs, almost anything is collectible and in demand and especially PCs that utilised DOS, partly because of the brilliant games and text based adventures that could be found on the systems at the time. The demand is currently outstripping supply, so much so that modern day replica’s of older PCs can often be found either as hobbyist builds or in a few cases, as commercially produced systems and you might need deep pockets to afford some of those.

If you do have an older PC and that’s where the files you need to preserve are, the options available become numerous and can mostly be solved with the addition of a USB controller, drivers, or cables. If you are using Windows, you do have an option to run some applications in compatibility mode, the problem you might face is when you need that compatibility to go back pre-Windows 7 in most cases, it’s not a reliable way but it is worth a try.

There will be oddities with preserving old files if you originally used proprietary drives such as Zip or Jaz Drives, or any number of the drives that came on the market and competed with each other in the early days of microcomputers and early PCs. Most of these drives were designed to tie you into a physical media format which would have been largely incompatible with any other drive from any other manufacturer, and because there were once so many of these things, none of them found mass traction and adoption. This means that you are going to be limited without replacement drives, and in some cases you might need to be creative in how you attach those early drives to a modern PC.

It becomes slightly easier if you have the original technology, there will almost always be a way to transfer files, even if you need to utilise a single board computer such as a Raspberry Pi and set up a preservation project. This is generally where emulation can make life much easier.


Something else to bear in mind is that whilst many of emulation based solutions will allow you to source original ROM files from the internet, doing that is something that mostly falls into the category that is a legally grey area. Mostly,  that area is not so grey in that it’s definitely illegal even if you own the original file, and it’s something that becomes complicated to do if you’re not used to running emulators, most need you to perform at least some sort of configuration. The good news here is that the emulation scene is big enough to offer support and most emulators are similar in how they work that in understanding one, means that you can probably tackle them all.

Emulators can emulate most things on a modern day PC or Mac, including relatively recent video games consoles, but that’s a completely different subject for someone else to cover. What I will say, is that there is a good chance that you will be able to recreate your old system on a new PC with an emulator to preserve your own original files.

What can I emulate?

On my $70 Raspberry Pi 400, I can emulate dozens of older systems, and almost everything I need to emulate without turning on a modern PC. I have emulators that can recreate those old LED and LCD table top video games along with emulators that can perfectly recreate 1980s arcade machines right the way through to home computers and video game consoles, although video games consoles post PlayStation 3 are few and far between and replicating a modern console is going to tax even the most powerful modern PC.

Emulation of early systems is generally flawless, emulation of modern systems is almost always a choppy experience at best, the emulators for anything from the PlayStation 3 onwards just haven’t had enough years of development to produce a seamless experience and arguably, that kind of technology is still relatively easy to find in working order.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that some emulators were written in the early 2000s and a few were created during the late 1990s, so depending on what you need to emulate might require you to either emulate an earlier system in order to emulate an even earlier system, which is going to be character building, or it will require you to track down some earlier hardware and work forwards from there.

Some of these emulators will continue to work well despite not being updated for many years, other emulators have huge communities that continue to develop the code to make it compatible with modern devices. My advice is to once again turn to the internet and track down the communities based around the system you need to emulate, and there are some really obscure systems so chances are that whatever you need to emulate will have someone waiting in the wings to offer some support.

Most emulators will be Open Source and freely available, in part because the copyright still exists for those old systems so anyone selling you an emulator is likely to be breaching the user agreement for distributing the software. That said, there are a few emulators that have been created by the original manufacturers or by organisations who now own or are closely aligned to the trademark, these will be mostly for industrial systems which are still required for manufacturing processes and some of them will cost money.

I use emulation a lot, especially when I need to create 8-bit images for clients and don’t have access to the original equipment. If I work on digital assets that will be used on original hardware, wherever possible I will create the assets on the original device wherever possible. For preservation, I don’t think it really matters, what does matter is that you have a file you can continue to access.

Emulation is going to be one of the primary tools that you will have to save your old digital work and files before transferring the old or newly created file to your chosen storage for preservation and use. So with this in mind, it’s worth getting a basic understanding of what emulation is and how it generally works so you can begin to apply the process of preservation across almost any technology or file that you will need to preserve.

Emulation is one way of recreating past technologies and formats, there are other ways such as creating a virtual machine (VM) on a modern PC and installing an older operating system within that virtual machine running within a modern operating system, but it’s not a process I would recommend if all you need to do is transfer your first digital painting on to a USB stick, this approach would be similar to taking a sledgehammer to crack open an egg.

A step above emulation and a direct replacement for owning the original equipment would be to replicate the original hardware at the hardware level as opposed to emulating via software. It’s worth just going through a brief explanation of software versus hardware emulation.

1.    Emulation: Emulation involves creating a software-based replica of a hardware system or component. It typically runs on a general-purpose computing platform, such as a personal computer or a gaming console. Emulators mimic the behaviour of the original hardware by interpreting the system's instructions and translating them into equivalent actions on the host platform. Emulation can be more flexible and easily accessible, as it allows running multiple systems on a single device, but it may introduce some latency or inaccuracies due to the translation process. This might still be your best bet because as I said earlier, it matters not if you just need to preserve the file or transfer it to modern storage mediums.

2.    FPGA-based Hardware Replication: The MiSTer platform (there are other FPGA platforms), on the other hand, utilises a Field-Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) to replicate the behaviour of specific hardware systems. An FPGA is a reconfigurable integrated circuit that can be programmed to mimic the functions and behaviour of various digital systems. Instead of emulating the system in software, MiSTer or any other FPGA device recreates it in hardware using programmable logic elements.

This approach aims to achieve greater accuracy by directly replicating the original hardware's behaviour at a lower level. MiSTer uses FPGA cores that are specifically developed for each system, providing a more faithful representation of the original hardware's operation. For some use cases, this might be the way you need to go in the absence of original equipment, but for general preservation, it’s another sledgehammer that you won’t necessarily need.

In summary, emulation involves creating software-based replicas of hardware systems, while running a core on a MiSTer FPGA device uses reconfigurable hardware to replicate the behaviour of specific systems. Both approaches aim to provide a means of playing or experiencing classic hardware and software or accessing legacy files, but FPGA-based replication tends to offer a more accurate representation of the original systems because the hardware it runs on becomes to all intents and purposes, a new version of the original hardware at the hardware level.

As for what you will be able to preserve is really down to the “cores” or systems that you are able to emulate. The most popular ones are listed below, but it’s worth noting that there are literally dozens and dozens of emulators available for almost any computer or single board computer, and there are emulator packages available for other devices such as game consoles, Mac, and older hand held devices such as Sony’s PlayStation Vita and the recent Steam Deck from Valve.

female astronaut artwork by Mark Taylor
No More Hidden Figures by Mark Taylor - I find the history of women playing a major role in the Space race of the 60s an inspiring story. 

The Most Popular Cores:

1.    Retro Gaming Consoles:

·        NES (Nintendo Entertainment System)

·        SNES (Super Nintendo Entertainment System)

·        Sega Genesis

·        Game Boy (including Game Boy Color and Game Boy Advance)

·        PlayStation 1

·        Atari 2600

·        Atari 7800

·        Neo Geo

·        Game Gear

·        Sega Master System

·        TurboGrafx-16

·        Nintendo 64 (limited compatibility)

2.    Home Computers:

·        Commodore 64

·        Amiga

·        Atari ST

·        ZX Spectrum

·        MS-DOS (using DOSBox)

·        Amstrad CPC

3.    Arcade Machines:

·        MAME (Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator)

·        FinalBurn Alpha

·        Neo Geo

·        Capcom Play System (CPS-1, CPS-2, CPS-3)

·        Atari

4.    Handheld Consoles:

·        Game Boy

·        Game Boy Color

·        Game Boy Advance

·        Sega Game Gear

·        Atari Lynx

·        Neo Geo Pocket

5.    Other Consoles:

·        Sega Dreamcast (limited compatibility)

·        Sega Saturn (limited compatibility)

·        PSP (PlayStation Portable)

·        Nintendo DS (limited compatibility)

·        3DO

·        Wonderswan

6.    Other Systems:

·        Apple II

·        BBC Micro

·        Acorn Archimedes

·        MSX

·        Amstrad CPC

·        Sinclair QL

·        Oric

·        Thomson TO7/70

·        ColecoVision

·        Intellivision

·        Vectrex

It is worth noting that the compatibility and performance of emulation can vary based on the specific Raspberry Pi model you have if you are using a Pi, and the quality of functionality can vary between the emulator software being used. Additionally, certain systems may require additional configuration or BIOS files for proper emulation which is true even if you are using an emulator from a PC or Mac, but the emulation community reaches far and wide and support is often just a click or two away and YouTube is a great source of reliable step-by-step instruction.

It's also worth mentioning that new emulators and compatibility improvements are being developed constantly, so this list may not be exhaustive and may change over time.

Rather than games consoles where it is unlikely your original files will sit, it’s more likely that you will want to emulate an older computer. A Raspberry Pi can emulate a wide range of popular vintage computers, and both Mister and PC/Mac are capable of running most of them really well. Here are some examples:

1.    Commodore 64: The Raspberry Pi and PCs can run emulators such as VICE to emulate the Commodore 64, a popular 8-bit home computer from the 1980s.

2.    Amiga: Emulators like UAE4All and Amiberry allow the Raspberry Pi to emulate the Commodore Amiga, a renowned home computer known for its multimedia capabilities. If you need to emulate on a PC, WinUAE is one of the best for Commodore Amiga, but you could also use an A500 Mini, a replica of the original Amiga A500 that also emulates other Amiga models. These devices are manufactured by a company called Retro Games Ltd and are available from places such as Amazon, and it is a hassle free way of replicating one of the best home computers of all time.

Most of my modern Amiga based artworks are now created on this device, purely because it is more efficient and the use of the WHD Load functionality means that files no longer have to exist on a single disc.

3.    Atari ST: The Raspberry Pi can emulate the Atari ST, another popular home computer from the 1980s, using emulators like Hatari which is a cross platform emulator.

4.    ZX Spectrum: Emulators such as Fuse and ZEsarUX enable the Raspberry Pi to emulate the ZX Spectrum, a widely-used 8-bit home computer primarily known for its extensive game library and despite its limited graphics and pallets is actually one of the finest machines to create 8-bit graphics on, if you can forgive the attribute clash where colours overlap.

5.    MS-DOS: DOSBox, a DOS emulator, can be installed on a Raspberry Pi to run software and games designed for MS-DOS-based computers but it really comes into its own when used on a PC where any old DOS based files might be found. Certainly if you have access to a USB Floppy disc alongside DOS Box, that might be all you really need to begin your journey of preservation. PCem should be your go to emulator for IBM PC and clones.

6.    Apple II: The Raspberry Pi can emulate the Apple II, a series of personal computers, using emulators like AppleWin and LinApple. Apple II runs extremely well via emulation on every device I have ever attempted to run it on.

7.    BBC Micro: The Raspberry Pi can emulate the BBC Micro, a popular home computer in the UK, through emulators like BeebEm and B-Em. There are known problems with original BBC Micro’s with a few components that haven’t aged well, but it is becoming a popular micro for collectors in the USA who feel able to take on the challenge of getting a PAL rather than NTSC device to power on, and the challenge of the power supply of course. It is an unlikely source of original files, many of which will either reside on a floppy disc (5.25 inch, and that’s an issue without a physical drive) or on cassette which will be slightly easier to preserve.

8.    Acorn Archimedes: The RPCEmu emulator allows the Raspberry Pi to emulate the Acorn Archimedes, a line of computers known for their advanced graphics and sound capabilities. In terms of digital art, many of the original digital artists in the UK at least, will have had some touch point with an Archimedes and it is feasible that old files where they still exist, might need to be preserved.

9.    MSX: The Raspberry Pi can emulate the MSX, a popular home computer standard, using emulators such as openMSX and blueMSX. MSX was a standard rather than a computer and it was a standard that went beyond home computers. MSX was an abbreviation for Microsoft Extended Basic, so if you do have original files from this system it is likely that you can find far easier creative ways of preserving them because the language was largely shared between lots of devices from the period and it is well supported by emulators today.

The standard wasn’t as widely adopted in the West but it remained popular in Japan and the far east more broadly, but it had some limitations mostly as a result of each manufacturer utilising the standard but then making significant changes between models that made them incompatible.

10.                   Tandy TRS-80: Emulators such as XRoar and MAME can be used to emulate the Tandy TRS-80, a popular line of microcomputers produced by Tandy Corporation that found traction in the US especially where it was affectionately better known as the CoCo or Color Computer. If you were getting into computers during the 80s in the USA, the TRS-80 could very well have been one of your first forays into home computing. If it wasn’t the Tandy, then it was likely to a machine from Commodore or Atari.

This really does demonstrate the breadth of the possibilities for emulation which should make any preservation projects much easier, and aside from the consoles, most of the home computers above had at least some level of graphic capability that would lend itself to the creation of digital art.

vintage telepoint phone from the 90s artwork by Mark Taylor
Telepoint 92 by Mark Taylor - A precursor to the modern day cell phone, these telpoint handsets could make calls within range of a base station which could be found in restaurants and service stations along major traffic routes. When they worked... Again, this piece is all hand drawn. I would love to find an original one of these today!

It's not just art assets that you might need to recover from old data storage mediums, recently I had the pleasure of recovering a lost unpublished manuscript on behalf of a collector of my work who also happens to be a writer. Originally created in  Word Perfect during the early 1980s it had originally been stored on a 5.25 inch floppy, was later transferred to a 3.5 inch floppy which is where it remained until two weeks ago. It’s now stored on a USB memory stick with multiple copies in the cloud!

Video Killed the Radio Star…

I’m not sure if video ever killed radio or whether Netflix truly killed video, but I do know that there are still millions of VHS and Betamax video tapes filled with distant memories languishing in cardboard boxes. There may even be a couple of Video 2000 cassettes somewhere amongst them too.

Preserving video footage from old 8mm film and VHS tapes was for a while during the early 2000s, a widely held skill. We had begun to see the emergence of recordable DVD players and many of us would attach our decades old failing videocassette players to them and transfer our VHS tapes so that we could preserve our videocam memories onto CD-RWs.

We did the same with Vinyl records when as the audio cassette became popular when Sony gave us the Walkman. Everything is cyclical, Walkman is back as a brand, vinyl outsells CD, Blockbuster still exists in Bend, Oregon, and a handful of new video rental stores have begun to remerge over the past couple of years.

Maybe it’s the social event of selecting a title at the gathering in the Church of Hollywood on a Saturday night, and the shear profit that can be made from selling popcorn and Ben and Jerry’s. Who knows, maybe it’s just a nostalgia thing that we’ll move on from.

In every attic in the land there exists a cardboard box, and where there’s no cardboard box there is a gap that memories of past technologies fill. In that box there will be a mish mash of blank tapes from every conceivable format that we bought into as the next big thing as we listen to the shouts of, “we want our memories back”.

Thankfully there’s both an app and a dongle for that, what a time to be alive. The missing bit is the technology that is still needed to spool that magnetic tape into a muddled mess because the heads need cleaning. If we can lay our hand on a bargain eBay video cassette player, we now have options.

Connecting a VHS player to a modern display is going to be your next mission, for this you will need at least a composite to HDMI adapter. These are cheap enough but buyer beware, the cheapest will degrade an already degraded film even more.

You might want to spend a little more and buy some upscaling technology, or you could find a specialist who preserves and transfers old film, there are plenty of small independent businesses that have managed to somehow continue making a living out of transferring old film formats to digital files and often they can tackle the preservation of other file types too.

You might need to borrow or buy a playback device, there are still plenty of working video cassette recorders on sites such as eBay, my advice is to avoid the listings that suggest what you are buying is super rare, the reality is that very few of these devices are going to be worth more than $50 US or £50 UK. The exception will be the devices that combine recordable DVD and Video Cassette, and because many were manufactured without a recordable DVD, you may have to pay a premium for these. If you already own the playback device, you will need to get it connected to your TV or monitor, thankfully you can easily pick up composite to HDMI cables, although in some cases you may have to use a combination of cables, bearing in mind that the more connectivity you place between the player and the screen, the poorer the quality  of picture you will see.

To counter this, I would be minded to play the footage back through a video capture device or card, and again, these are readily available but I would go for something that will upscale the resolution, and I would avoid the really inexpensive devices because they will either lack in the sound department or the display, often both. Get the best you can afford.

Transfer of video is usually as simple as starting the playback on the device and using video capture software. I would avoid any software bundled with capture cards that have been purchased online, you will have no idea if that software contains any malicious code. Stick to something like Premier Pro or any of the free video editing suites such as Da Vinci Resolve or OBS Studio if finances are stretched.

Just remember to clean the heads on the playback device using isopropyl alcohol before you start, check the medium containing the footage for any signs of degradation, and make sure you select the correct input source on your software.

Once you have a digital file you can then begin the real clean up process using the video editing software. You will need to follow similar principles for audio tapes and CDs, but the process for capturing sound is generally much easier than it is for video.

retro Tv artwork by Mark Taylor
TV 1974 by Mark Taylor - There was nothing like a game of Tennis on the TV in the 70s! Hand drawn because I don't believe in AI - unlike so many artists these days who love nothing more than to press a button. I have views I will one day share, but in the meantime, lazy, get a grip.

Digital Preservation Coalition…

Organisations such as the Digital Preservation Coalition are excellent sources of information that will help you to preserve all of your digital files, and they provide deep insights into how you might want to pre-plan any future preservation requirements which is essential if your current work involves digital assets that you will want to continue to own or have available.

You can find the Digital Preservation Coalition website and its resources right here:

The DPC has various objectives at its heart;

  • Community: by offering a warm welcome to all agencies and individuals with an interest in digital preservation and providing an efficient and effective platform for meaningful and sustained professional exchange.
  • Advocacy: by working towards a climate of public and institutional policy which is better informed and better inclined towards digital preservation.

·        Workforce Development: by providing opportunities for our members to acquire, develop and retain competent and responsive workforces that are ready to address the challenges of digital preservation.

·        Good Practice: by supporting our members towards greater maturity in digital preservation through knowledge exchange, continuous improvement, horizon scanning, advice on standards, authoritative publications, and engaging and informative events.

·        Accountable, Sustainable and Dynamic Governance: by maintaining and enhancing our organizational functions and structures to ensure good governance.

Usefully, the site is also home to the Digital Preservation Handbook which goes into great detail in highlighting the various resources that you might need. It also provides a strategic overview of the key issues around digital preservation, but more importantly, it offers insight as to which tools might be more suited to particular preservation projects.

Selecting Target Formats for Preservation…

The best advice I can offer anyone before you embark on any kind of preservation project is to first figure out if anyone else has preserved the file before is a vast rabbit hole containing thousands upon thousands of files, applications, ROM files, video, code, magazines, books, and I’m not sure there’s going to be enough space here to list everything that the organisation has preserved. You can literally spend weeks on the site just looking around, and it is also carrying out the never ending mission of capturing the web through time points in history.

Another consideration is that not all digital formats are suitable for preservation and some might not have been created with preservation in mind. It’s also worth noting that a file doesn’t have to be preserved in the original format if it can be preserved in a different format that will make access and future preservation easier. That said, the point of preserving something is to usually preserve it in its original format but it’s often a case of being pragmatic.

Open Source formats are the obvious choice to ensure future compatibility but proprietary formats might be more robust, bearing in mind that they will ultimately become susceptible to upgrade issues and obsolescence. In most cases, preserving in an Open Source format will provide a level of assurance in that the formats are more likely to be technologically neutral and not reliant on business models.

The choice of file formats becomes more limited when we consider preserving newer technologies and file types, often the newness of something means that it’s not fully matured and there’s less likely to be anything other than proprietary formats available.

Lossy formats, where data is compressed or thrown away as part of the encoding will inevitably mean that you will only be able to preserve at best, a facsimile of the original file, elements will be missing because they were thrown away, so if preserving an original file is critical, lossy files shouldn’t be used.

This is where decisions have to be made. The properties of a file are the essence of the file content, so you have to consider exactly what you need to preserve and the reasons you are preserving the file. With digital art, you will want the preservation file to be as close to the original as possible and you will want to retain the original metadata. The issue here is that the metadata is often stripped out by the very tools that you will use to preserve the file.

The tools used within preservation fall within broadly different categories and have significantly different functions. In any preservation project you have to consider the tools that you will use for migration. Migration is very much about transferring unsupported and obsolete formats and converting them into new formats. We then have to consider the tools for rendition, how will the file be viewed or played, but there are also tools used in the process of preservation that will identify formats or aspects of file formats which are not immediately obvious.

Validation of files is imperative in any preservation project, and this usually requires more specialist tools of which there are relatively few. JHOVE is one such tool and is used for file format validation, validating the integrity of the file by comparing the file format against a list of expected file behaviours.

One more thing that you will need to consider as part of any preservation project, is the proliferation of formats. Ideally, files need to be in consistent formats which will remain supported for as long as possible, or that can more easily be migrated to any future format. What you definitely need to avoid is to create a library of new files in inconsistent formats.

Preserving digital art is challenging, most images are simply saved as JPEG images which in itself is a lossy format which is subject to degrading further, so my advice here is to create multiples of any file you are working on. I tend to keep a JPEG for the initial distribution, but I also keep individual copies of the file in the original format. This means that I also retain each layer used, and to add to the provenance of the work I also retain the files created at various stages of completion. This way I can at least demonstrate that I was the original author of the work, and if there are issues with the lossy files down the line, I can recreate them.

Jurassic Coast artwork stained glass by Mark Taylor
Jurassic Coast by Mark Taylor - One of a series of landscapes I have been working on recently. This is the first to be published and originated as a commissioned work that was printed on acrylic block.

Think about preservation from the start…

If I work on a five thousand dollar commissioned digital artwork, I’m not going to upload it to One Drive or Drop Box and then rely on those services to forever be the single source of truth. I have a hosted server with a mirror for my work where it needs to be backed up online, but most of my work will sit on at least two physical mediums of which at least one is then stored in a completely different physical space.

One of the fundamental cornerstones of the art world is that art should be well documented. Documenting your work allows you to take your place in a rather large history book. The benefit of doing this might ultimately only ever be useful to your family, but for artists who will go on to be discovered more widely within the art world, this documentation will help future generations to understand the context of your work and to understand the process and mind behind it.

We all generally accept that an original Matisse or Van Gogh would be much more valuable if the provenance can be proven, it’s also what helps to determine that a work is not a fake. With digital work and digital files, or indeed any kind of electronically stored or produced media, that distinction will prove invaluable in the future but even before we become discovered as artists, it is one of the underpinning principles that will ultimately make you and your work collectible, it should be as essential as creating the work in the first place and it is at its most basic level, what also encourages collectors and galleries to continue to invest.

It should also form an integral component of your plans for preserving your work, making sure that any documentation is treated in the same way as the artwork you create. This shouldn’t only include the artwork and the written description, it should also include any concept sketches, files that you created as part of the final work, and all of this should then be packaged and supplied to any buyer, especially where those buyers are buying original work.

Buyers wouldn’t expect this documentation if they were buying an open edition print, but they would and should be given the documentation or at least a copy of the documentation if the work is being sold as an original or limited edition, even if it is a digital work or print. I also think it goes deeper than that, we should be documenting and preserving work so that we have a much better understanding of our own journeys and progression.

If we document our work we can revisit it. If we were professional athletes we would record every race and play it back in the hope that we see something that we can change. I find doing this is the only opportunity I get to take a little time out to stand back and take a closer look at what I’m doing and where I’m going, and how much I’m progressing.

Even nearly four decades on, I’m never completely happy with anything I create, the next work has to be better. When I look through all of the documentation I’ve written up over the years, I do think my technique has evolved, I think my style has become much more refined and I know I’m much faster today than I was even five or six years ago. If I can see that, I would hope that the documentation and the work evidences that for collectors too.

My point here is that documenting is important for your art, it’s essential for preservation but selfishly, it’s critical to building your own confidence and provides some self validation to your work and your own progression. So with any plan for preservation, documentation should be regarded as being just as critical in your thinking.

abstract landscape artwork by Mark Taylor
Radiance In the Grove by Mark Taylor - Aspects of this were painted using acrylics, digitised using a drum scanner and depth digitally added by hand using a stylus. The light was created with a paintbrush using a dry medium and then dabbed with the edge of a steel ruler!

The Future of the Cloud…

Before we conclude, I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that preservation should be thought about even as you start a brand new work. There are techniques and tools that we can apply and use to bring back memories from that VHS or Betamax video tape, we can tackle that old Word Perfect file and preserve the words so that they can continue to be read, but we now know that all of this post-preservation takes some considerable effort and time, in most cases it takes some financial input too.

We are better prepared these days for the likelihood that a cloud service will shut down, I think we can all assume that whatever they once said about anything you write being forever available on the internet, we can now disregard because while it might be stored somewhere in cyber space for eternity in some form, that no longer means that it will be forever accessible.

More than that, the world is changing rapidly and what we think we know today will without doubt change tomorrow and we can already see the signs that the cloud as we know it today, is evolving, maturing, and responding to changing needs, cyber threats, and bottle necks produced by the shear volume of data that is exponentially growing second by second, but how much will it change in the future is more of a concern, and just how much more difficult will digital preservation be in the next decade?

I touched on the small point that cloud services have been shuttering of late and for some, this might be a worry in that some day, the cloud might cease to exist all together and we will have forever lost any hope of preserving our digital lives and files. For clarity, I don’t see the cloud disappearing entirely, or even ever, but I can guarantee that it will become more passive in its role and it will probably play a less significant role in favour of edge and distributed computing.

Let me explain, imagine a data centre as it exists today, it holds billions of data points all pointing to individuals or organisations, artworks, downloads, word files, spreadsheets, PDFs, digital purchases, music, you name it, it will have a presence in the cloud.

Data centres are large operations and they’re also incredibly expensive and complicated to operate. Another issue with the cloud is that there are no obvious economies of scale for low level users and small businesses, the more bandwidth you use, the more storage you need, the higher the cost. However, there are some hidden economies of scale at play here despite the costs becoming exponentially greater. If fewer organisations relied on cloud based computing the costs would already be prohibitively expensive. Bandwidth is up there with printer ink and gold.

But it’s the sheer size of data centres that presents some of the biggest headaches and challenges. Not only are they expensive to set up and operate, albeit there will be savings in managing them with better implementation of AI, but the size of them also makes them a target for bad threat actors who are intent on breaking into them to steal the data they hold. Information is power and future wars will no doubt become ever more reliant on access to data.

Another problem is that masses of computing operations are carried out in the cloud and if the bandwidth isn’t available, it introduces a time delay or lag. If we think of a future where augmented reality glasses finally become a thing, and more and more people utilise it and access it, bandwidth will become even more critical. Let’s put that into some context.

If bandwidth is at a premium and the internet continues to grow exponentially, everything will become much slower, because we will be forever impeded by the speed of the networks and the speed with which we can respond by adding to that infrastructure. If you play online games a 50 millisecond delay is enough for you to lose a game of Call of Duty if you’re playing online. If you play competitive e-sports, that 50 milliseconds is comparable to an athlete passing the finishing line in a race about a minute after the winner. A 10 millisecond delay through the lens of a connected augmented reality or virtual reality device will be more than enough to introduce motion sickness in the wearer.

If you’re playing Call of Duty or experiencing a world in VR with a little motion sickness, no one dies, it’s a bug bear that we have to shoulder and we mostly accept that it is what it is in the hope that the bugs will be ironed out one day and networks will evolve even more. But, until that happens, let’s place the same delays into other real world scenarios. Imagine a 10-millisecond delay in a self-driving car travelling at 70 miles per hour, the outcome of that delay could indeed be a matter of life and death.

So whilst the cloud is useful right now, there are questions about firstly, how long each service remains financially viable, and secondly, as the world becomes more connected, is it actually fast enough to cope. There will be instances even now, where the ideal would be for cloud users to operate in true-real-time.

To do that, you would probably need to be connecting to a cloud service with less than one millisecond of delay, that’s assuming that we get to the point of all networks being able to transmit data at the speed of light, which would mean that any cloud user would need to be less than 93-miles away from where the data is being processed.

Boat leaving the estuary artwork by Mark Taylor
Departing Tide by Mark Taylor - A simple seascape that highlights the plight of fishing crews around the world when they have to leave family behind. Originally created as a commissioned work.

This is essentially where the next iteration of the cloud begins to emerge in the form of edge computing. The cloud as we understand will continue to underpin what we do, but its role will become less obvious as the processing will be done on the edge of the space between the user and the cloud service, more localised in one sense, more decentralized in another, we might have even come full circle to some extent.

Going back to the cloud being big enough to be a target of criminals, the idea of processing data closer to home will make life a lot more challenging for the bad players but we are still away, away from this being the norm. If you process or store data at home, meaning that you’re not leaving a data footprint spread across the cloud, the data stored closer to home becomes a smaller target, so it becomes more like finding a needle in a haystack and the bad players have a harder time.

So if the processing of data becomes more local with the cloud then used simply as a bucket to fill with data which in turn is processed not within the data centre but in that local infrastructure closer to home, that has to be far more secure. That does make an assumption that we can find better ways than we currently have to protect the edge, but once that is achieved it could also reduce many of the current bottlenecks between the user and the cloud service, it will become faster by default, although I suspect we will never find a complete golden panacea.

My point is that we really ought to be thinking about our future data at the same time as we’re thinking about preserving our past data.

As artists who might be creating digital works, we don’t have anywhere near the same data retention and preservation requirements as governments and large corporations have, and the transition to edge and distributed computing isn’t something that most of us need be overly concerned about.

At the level small businesses and individuals utilise cloud services I think changes will be negligible for a while, and any changes will mostly happen in the background without us knowing what those changes are or mean. But one things is becoming very clear and that is that the cloud isn’t something that we can guarantee will have permanence and that’s why we need to develop our skills in mastering the art of digital preservation.

The extent that we do that might even mean that we need to start thinking about reintroducing some of the old ways of doing things but on a grander scale that allows greater retention capability and storage capacity. It’s a challenge that might be worth getting the jump on.

Only the tip of the digital iceberg…

Hopefully you now have some awareness of why digital preservation is critical, especially in the art world. We have often gone to extreme lengths in the preservation of physical artworks but there is a question around why we’re not doing it enough for digital art.

If you are a serious art collector you will no doubt get excited when news that a lost Van Gogh has been found and preserved, yet here we are at the very early dawn of digital art and already it seems that we are less concerned about future generations becoming excited when a lost digital artwork is uncovered. It’s as if we sometimes press the pause button on capturing historic moments and my fear is that humanity will look back with regret that we didn’t do a little more to preserve these still early days of the digital revolution.

We have covered a lot already in this article but I fear that we haven’t even scratched the surface of what is a fascinating subject that everyone could get involved with. Preservation of digital media has a limited window in which you can make sure that the snapshot of history is captured for future generations.

As custodians of digital assets in these still early defining years, surely we all have a responsibility to do what we can so that future generations can understand how we got to the here and now. So as I said at the beginning of this article, it’s time to put on your best Indiana Jones hat and climb into the attic to make a start.

Until next time, stay safe, stay creative, and look after each other!

About Mark…

Mark is an artist who specialises in vintage inspired works featuring technology and is also known for his landscapes. He has been creating professional digital work since the 1980s and collects vintage technology and ephemera.

You can purchase Mark’s work through Fine Art America or his Pixels site here:   You can also purchase prints and originals directly. You can also view Mark’s portfolio website at

Join the conversation on Facebook at: connect on Twitter @beechhouseart or waste hours on Pinterest right here:  


Popular Posts