The Apathy of Optical Media

Who cares about electrostatic discharge?For some reason, I've been involved in several conversations during the past couple weeks that revolved around the subject of recorded music, and how the media on which it's stored has changed. Not the vinyl to CD metamorphosis so much as the more recent move to hard-disk storage, and the even more recent trend toward solid-state media as storage capacity increases. It's a somewhat troubling development, because although the size and convenience benefits are undeniable, there's one significant disadvantage common to magnetic and chip-based media, and that's damage caused by electrostatic discharge. Optical media—CDs and DVDs—don't care about things like that.

Although the problem is more common where relative humidity is low, it's certainly possible to blast your cherished music with high voltages no matter where you live. The right combination of materials—a polyester shirt and rubber-soled shoes, for example—and bodily movement may result in the buildup of electricity with no place to go, hence the static classification. Handling an MP3 player under these conditions—disk-based or not—invites that static buildup to move, suddenly and destructively, into the very locations inhabited by the digital bits we perceive as music. I've spent considerable time looking at this sort of damage with an electron microscope, and it ain't pretty.

While a few scrambled bits may not be catastrophic in the grand scheme of things, it isn't the kind ocircumstance you'd want for your prized music archives. It's one thing when the musical selection you carry in your pocket is refreshed by frequent connections to your computer, but quite another when the only copy you have is corrupted by repeated blasts of electricity, or one big lightning-induced surge for that matter. I know several music lovers who have completely lost track of what's on those 80 GB drives in their pocket-size jukeboxes, and not every track they've collected over time is easily replaceable, if at all. While the hardcore audiophile may frown on doing things that way, the temptation to keep music collections on magnetic media—even when they're removable, and stored with care—has probably already overcome a few serious collectors here and there.

It's tough to argue the benefits of the relatively large plastic disks we call CDs, or DVDs, when everyone can plainly see the much smaller, cooler alternative. As magnetic disk and solid-state capacity increases—and with it the potential for damage, since the bits are more tightly packed—the reasons for keeping those bulky disks may become increasingly unclear. But if you're the sort of person who considers the idea of corrupted musical bits and bytes reprehensible, it may be useful to ponder the microscopic, laser-burned pits that encode the music on those shiny disks.

Those pits don't care about electrical vandalism. Just food for thought.


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