8 Replies to ““It’s Turtles All The Way Down”: Layers of Abstraction in Books and Digital Objects”

  1. Hi Nathan,

    I really like your introductory quote, and the comparison of the layered structures of books to those of computer systems. This comparison is very helpful to me, and I’m sure to many of us who are much more familiar with books than with hard drives! Perhaps the metaphor can go further, to explain why, as you say, “it simply isn’t good enough to leave these layers out of view.” Each layer is important, and holds its own information which is crucial to the identification and use of the entire object. In physical books, this goes down to the ink on the page, and even the machine which printed it. For digital objects, this goes down to each bit, and the hardware that is necessary to interpret them. When preserving a book, we must know what material it is made out of, and what kind of ink is used, so that we (or conservators) can provide the proper conditions and treatment. If we fail to address the bottom-most layers, the material will become unreadable – the same is true for digital objects!


  2. Nathan,

    Like Rosemary, I really like this analogy, and thank you for sharing that quote! It is a very helpful analogy for us bibliophiles.

    I think it is important to emphasize your point that archivists access this ‘behind the scenes’ look at the bitstream through software or hardware. Even when we look at a magnetic disc at a lower level of complexity than we are used to, we still must rely on intermediary interpreters for our data. I think this is a key distinction between the book and the bitstream.

    To read a book, you need operating eyes and a grasp of the language and alphabet being used. Not necessarily easy to come by, depending on your education or upbringing, but all contained within you as a person. With a hard drive or any other drive holding bit information, you need devices to read the data, and interpret it, and present it. Reading books is a brain-dependent activity. Reading bits, even at a minimal level, is a computer-based activity.

    It seems a bit ludicrous sometimes, seeing as humans are the ones who told the software how to read the bits. But even if someone could read binary (and wanted to waste years or decades of their life doing so for minimal payoff) would they ever be able to reconstruct the complex layers of information from a disk as they would from a book?

    The levels of complexity are the same, but hard drives and books use completely different languages.

  3. Nathan,

    Like Rosemary and Margot said, I really liked your analogy as well. As I was reading the articles for this week, I also noticed the running theme of “layers.” Margot makes an interesting point by comparing humans reading a book to computers reading a hard drive. It makes the job of the archivist that much harder considering we need to obtain devices to read these files while also keeping the devices and the files as up to date as possible. It seems that our jobs tend to get infinitely more complicated and multifaceted the more we involve technology/anything digital. But that is where our profession is going! So we have to figure out ways to adapt.

  4. Nathan,
    I appreciated your post this week because it was similar to my thoughts as I read these articles. By examining the multiple layers of a digital object, archivists will be well placed to, as you say, “dive beneath the surface.” Much like processors of analog materials are experts in the content they work with, I imagine that in the future, archivists who strictly work with digital born content will have an intimate knowledge of their objects beyond what the users see on a screen. I’m not sure the profession is quite there yet, and I agree with Kerri in that we will need to figure out how to adapt. I just wonder how long it will take to get to the point where all cultural heritage institutions have a basic plan for digital preservation, much less familiarizing themselves with the bits that make up their objects. While I see it as a noble goal, I don’t see this kind of work becoming common archival practice any time soon.

  5. Thanks all for commenting and for the kind words.

    Rosemary – Your identification of even more layers to books is so spot on, I’m rather jealous I didn’t think of it first! A thread that I have found interesting in this course so far is the idea that digital archives and preserving digital objects is not a paradigm shift in archives, but rather a natural extension of the work that has been going on for centuries. I think the fact that we can find so many parallels between a digital and physical information carrier really underlines that.

    Margot/Kerri – You guys make great points about the need for intermediary hardware and/or software to actually interrogate a digital object’s layers of representation beyond the surface, and how that sets digital objects apart. However, I still think there are parallels here to the preservation of books. An example: In order to examine and gather information from the type of ink used in a book one needs to have both a good microscope/magnifying glass (hardware) and the knowledge to understand what one is seeing (software).

    Is that actually a useful parallel though? Maybe not. As you point out, Mallory, regardless of the parallels archives still need to actually study digital preservation and acquire the hardware/software needed to preserve their digital objects. Still, I’m less pessimistic about this than you appear to be. The history of archives and libraries is partially the history of information professionals recognizing challenges and enthusiastically stepping up to meet them. Just as we once decided we needed to learn chemistry and materials science in order to properly preserve paper documents, I believe that more and more archivists will be willing to learn some computer science in order to be better stewards of their increasingly born-digital collections.

  6. I have also been thinking about layers of meaning. The readings this week emphasized the physical layers underlying all digital objects: the magnetic charges that are interpreted into ones and zeroes, which are then interpreted into code, which is then interpreted by software. I think something missing here is the degree to which WE are the ultimate interpreters — we as in “humans” and also we as “information professionals” or “researchers.” It’s up to us to assign meaning, never the disks of the programs.

    I know that “Turtles All the Way Down” is just the title of your piece, and it’s sort of accurate. But really I think we have rational end points here, and the readings really helped to point out how, for digital objects, the bottom layer is a magnetic disk and the top layer is us! Sure, there are “innumerable relationships” since we are dealing with such complicated things, but it is nice to remember that those end points exist.

  7. Jeff – Yeah, I’ll cop to the title being a bit misleading. The quote is something that came to me while going through the readings and thinking about all the nested layers of abstraction present below the “surface” level graphical user interface of a computer system.

    You’re right though, there is an origin (charged particles on the magnetic substrate) and a destination (the human mind) but I might quibble a bit with you that there is a top and bottom. The way I see it, the layers of abstraction continue propagating inside the human brain (language to images to emotions to interlinking meanings) until that human decides to articulate those meanings back down into language which is expressed on a hard disk as charged particles, starting the whole cycle again!

    I might be overthinking this.

  8. In some senses I agree with this, as archivists we may need to be able to gather information from every layer of extraction that it is possible for us to be able to gather. It does however remind me oddly of a reading that I did in a history of the book class for Professor Kraus.

    In this class, we read William Johnson’s “Bookscrolls as media”. In this it was suggested that a bookscroll in highly literate 1st century Rome was rarely read in the fashion we would think of as reading. First of all, a bookscroll was never made with punctuation, such existed, but was only added later, ideally a skilled reader would know the text and therefor not need it. Second, it was usually read outloud by a skilled slave, often in public or over dinner. Lastly if the work was to be read, it was to be read silently from end to end in order to aid memorization. In a sense these are layers of abstraction as well that we could not preserve. However, even without a skilled orator reading Virgil it is still possible for me to read in through the abstration layers presented by the much later invention, The codex, or through the reflowable text of a kindle and derive a meaning out of it.

    Perhaps to some degree digital objects will have to be re-contextualized by the available abstraction layers of some future system. Perhaps that might be alright even depending on what the important feature is.

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