Affordances of the future

The thing I appreciate about this class the most is the fact that it gave me a chance to work with art again, and investigate how that medium works vis a vis the information sciences. And the best tool it gave me to do that is introducing me to the concept of affordances.

What I like so much about affordances is the way that they’re a sort of double-edged sword: they help you identify the limitations of the hardware or software behind a particular item, but they also help you identify how to exploit it, how to wring every last drop of utility out of it, either during the creation and use of the item, or later while attempting to preserve or restore it. They can be physical affordances, as we learned about through Kirschenbaum and Montfort and Bogost, or more theoretical, as discussed in Rinehart and Ippolito.

Dan Flavin's works come to mind as an example of affordance.
Dan Flavin’s works come to mind as an example of affordance.

For analog materials, the affordances are pretty simple: a book is bound and only readable in one direction, it’s not searchable, and if printed in quires has certain page requirements. But on the other hand, if you take an early print book apart, you might find the remnants of earlier pre-print manuscripts in the binding. Or if you digitize one using certain image techniques, you might discover it’s actually reused parchment, a palimpsest. But these things are considered to be a bonus when found, whereas for a digital work taking the affordances into account is pretty much a necessity.

The biggest affordance to consider, and again I feel it’s one that is also in play with analog works, but not as strongly, is creator’s intent. Is a certain unexpected expression of the program code a bug or an Easter egg? Should it be preserved as a cheat or removed to preserve authenticity? Is recreating a font exactly important, in order to reproduce imagery and emotional atmosphere, or will any font do? This term has fallen out of favor — should it be replaced? When can we throw artistic intent out the window entirely, and truly kill the author? The reinforcement of the idea that knowledge of the situation in which a work was created is key is one that seems critical to me.

One affordance that I wish we had been able to discuss more, in one of the few classes I’ve taken that isn’t pure theory, is budgetary. It got touched on a few times, but financial restrictions play a large part in not only the creation of an item, but how well it can be maintained and how it can be preserved. Is there a fan community who can or has done a portion of the work, as with creating emulators for ROM-based video games? Does your institution have a donor (or potential donor) who is deeply involved with your intended subject? Or are you already over budget and facing more cuts?

We’re still exploring what the digital world is and how it works, coming up with new ways to exploit it all the time. So far we’ve done a lot of applying techniques from traditional art forms to this new medium, and we’ve even exploited the new media types to help us make the most of our analog media. But we still often fall into the trap of considering new media in the same vein as traditional media, and missing opportunities inherent in its nature. As more digital natives make their way into the preservation and curation fields, I hope that they will help create a new way of thinking about these media types that will be truly mold-breaking.

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