Exploration at the intersection of material and digital

A researcher, looking to discover more information about an antique object, does a close analysis of the object’s original medium, ultimately finding enlightening evidence about the object’s creation in the traces of an erased text. This summary could apply equally well to the Library of Congress’s work discovering clues to the editing process of the Declaration of Independence, and to Matthew Kirschenbaum’s investigation into a diskette containing a 1980s computer program, as described in his book Mechanisms. One case involves a physical object, viewed through a digital representation; while the other centers on a born-digital work, studied through the lens of its physical storage medium. As this example demonstrates, many of the issues involved with examining (and preserving) born-digital works carry over to the process of digitizing physical objects. In both cases, the intersection of the physical and digital leads to similar challenges, as well as offering interesting possibilities.

While we’ve been primarily discussing born-digital works so far, digitized versions of physical works are also a rapidly growing preservation concern. While there are some clear differences, many of the issues and concerns are similar. As in preservation of born-digital works, the concept of significant properties takes a central role in digitization. The FADGI Technical Guidelines for Digitizing Cultural Heritage Materials (PDF) and the ARSC Guide to Audio Preservation both go into exhaustive detail about current recommendations for digitizing different materials, in an attempt to define, and then capture, what is most significant about the original format. With some textual documents, a low-res or monochrome scan may be perfectly sufficient to communicate the informational value of the document, for example. On the other end of the spectrum, 3-dimensional artworks might require multiple photographs and complicated lighting setups to capture a full portrait of the object, and getting this right requires careful consideration of exactly which traits are most essential to capture.

The process of digitization requires us to start thinking about physical objects in much the same way that we’ve been considering born-digital objects—the digitizer must determine what the significant properties are, what context needs to be preserved, and build a strategy to capture this in the digitized object.

Mechanisms and Digitalisms

Along with these similarities, the intersection between digital and physical presents new opportunities for exploring and understanding a work. In Mechanisms, Kirschenbaum argues for the centrality of the physical materials (screens, hard drives, etc.) to ostensibly ephemeral digital works. Examining a hard drive closely, for example, uncovers new information about a program written to the disk. The digital also offers the potential to discover new information about physical objects. Marc Kaufman’s article describes the use of spectral imaging to reveal an erased word in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, casting useful light on the drafting and editing of the document.

The IRENE project is another application of digitization to extract new (or in this case old) information from a physical object. Researchers devised a technique to scan the grooves on records which were too fragile to be safely played. They then wrote software to “play” the scanned record; future work might allow for the digital removal of grime and surface noise from the record, resulting in a digital version more accurate to the original recording than would otherwise be possible, even for records that are still physically playable. (Sidebar: this reminded me of this MIT project, which recovered room audio from a silent video by observing the vibrations of a potato chip bag in the room.)

In both these situations, information previously lost (intentionally or unintentionally) is recovered later through a mixture of physical and digital analysis. This reminded me once again of platform and format theory, which both concern the ways in which materials are shaped (and sometimes limited) by the format in which they are created. By translating the object out of its original format into a new digital form, you lose many qualities of the original object. However, the digital format has its own unique affordances which can lead to new ways of studying and interacting with the object. Digitization in these cases can become a way to circumvent some of the “resistance in the materials” that limits our ability to access the original work in its physical form.

The digitization of physical objects, like the materiality of digital objects, opens interesting possibilities for both the preservation and study of materials. Just as digital works are ultimately preserved in a physical space, digitization increasingly plays an important role in accessing and understanding physical objects.

One Reply to “Exploration at the intersection of material and digital”

  1. I like the focus of your post on some of the things that we can actually GAIN by digitizing materials, apart from better access to materials. I think a lot about how I can look at digitized audio and see some of the artifacts when I send the digital signals through spectrum analyzers… these are useful things to do; things like this could potentially give us the opportunity to understand the spaces in which songs were created, and the microphones/tools used to make such songs, even when we don’t have data about this information.

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