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Miles and Miles of Files: Digital Preservation Reverberates in Popular Music

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The first time I recall hearing a musical reference to computers or anything else digital was many years ago while listening to the Moody Blues.  A high school girlfriend pulled out an album–On the Threshold of a Dream–and plopped it onto her portable record player. In the Beginning, the first track, opens with some trippy high-frequency electronic tones.  Spoken lyrics follow that represent–as best I can tell–a person’s struggle for self-understanding.  One bit always stuck in my mind, spoken by “Establishment:”

The Moody Blues: On the Threshold of a Dream, by djwudi, on Flickr
The Moody Blues: On the Threshold of a Dream, by djwudi, on Flickr

Of course you are my bright little star,
I’ve miles
And miles
Of files
Pretty files of your forefather’s fruit
and now to suit our
great computer,
You’re magnetic ink.

Considering the song was recorded in 1969, that’s a prescient view of keeping and accessing digital information.  While the lyrics are dystopian, the song acknowledges the powerful utility of collecting and keeping information over time.  And, mind you, this was in the days when only “the establishment” has access to computers.

Given all advances in information technology over the last 40 years, I wondered if digital preservation-related themes have appeared in subsequent popular music.  A few quick web searches led to some curious discoveries.  Most of the music is pretty obscure, even that by well-known artists.  Neil Young’s 1982 album Trans, for example featured distinctly non-best of songs such as Computer Age and Computer Cowboy.  In Sample and Hold, Young sang about comparing old data to new data:

I need a unit to sample and hold
but not the angry one
A new design, a new design

There is plenty of angst in the recent musical canon about the potential for data to dehumanize.  The 1981 Hüsker Dü album Land Speed Record includes the song Data Control, which declares:

They know everything about you
Keeping secrets is too hard
Your life is all recorded for you
In holes punched in computer cards

Now, by 1981 most current data was on magnetic tape, so we can assume (sure–why not?) the band saw the value in keeping the older punch card data accessible.

There are a number of bands, albums and songs that evoke topics related to digital preservation.  Consider the 2011 album Harvesting Metadata from KaiBorg (which includes tracks with the names Postural Schema and Resumption Tokens) and the song Repository 2 by Christopher Lennertz from the Saint Sinner movie soundtrack.  Band names include Digital Decay, Digital Damage and even Digital Mess.

The life cycle concept is fairly well established in the world of digital stewardship, and I was intrigued to learn the band Sieges Even (“German progressive metal”) christened a 1988 album Life Cycle.  A song with the same name includes lyrics–expressed in a most excited manner–that also can be considered a prescient view of the information professional’s world in the early 21st century:

Life cycles – almost everywhere!
Life cycles – permanent progress!
Life cycles – a higher contrivance.

If anyone can point to more popular music with some digital preservation connection, tenuous or otherwise, please leave a comment.




Comments (4)

  1. Of course, there’s Maria Muldaur’s 1974 #6 U.S. hit “Midnight at the OAIS.”


  2. How about the 1981 album by The Police, “Ghost in the Machine,” with the song “Too Much Information”? And check out the album cover, an LED representation of the three band members.

    • Tony–great suggestion, thanks!

  3. Syrinx sounds a bit like early Moody Blues one minute and the sound track of an old Tarzan flick the next. Or the progressive jazz of Ornette Coleman or Miles Davis. One observer says that Syrinx’s music is “ultimately human music,” and in it “pop meets the avant garde and wins most of the round. .. No one, absolutely no one, has ever sounded like them before.”

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