This week we look at how digital technology is changing what we preserve and how we preserve it. How do we handle the preservation of digital formats? How can twitter bots create historical interpretation? And how does digital technology open those preservation and interpretation processes up to more people? This week’s readings attempt to grapple with those questions.
Social Memory and Preserving Digital Formats
In Re-collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart discuss the preservation of new media formats in the context of the art world. They focus especially on social memory, which they define as “how and what societies remember” (14). Museums, libraries, and archives have traditionally been key sites of this social memory, but they often do a poor job of handling digital formats. Ippolito and Rinehart argue that in order to handle these formats, institutions need to be more open to preservation techniques like emulation, migration, and reinterpretation, rather than solely storage. If a piece of art was created to display on a computer screen, what matters is usually not the exact computer or even the exact operating system, but the visual experience the viewer has. That experience should be the focus of the preservation, not the physical details. They heavily emphasize “variable media,” and the idea that the works that will survive best are those that don’t rely on a specific medium to function.
Sebastian Chan and Aaron Cope provide a concrete case study of the challenges of collecting and preserving digital media in their article. They examine the Cooper-Hewitt’s acquisition of Planetary, an iPad app that visualizes the user’s music library as a series of solar systems and galaxies. It quickly ceased to be compatible with the current version of iOS, so the Cooper-Hewitt pursued a variety of measures to maintain it. They open sourced the code and encouraged derivative works to keep the program going and maintained an ongoing relationship with the donor to help evaluate those derivative works. They also collected earlier versions, change logs, and bug reports as part of the acquisition – with digital formats, a single “final version” often is not enough. It may not even exist.
Bots and Interpretation
New digital formats can also impact the way people and institutions create and perform historical interpretation. Steven Lubar and Mark Sample both delve into the world of Twitter bots. Lubar (whose work some of us remember from our History of Museums class) shares his appreciation for museum bots, which share random objects from a museum’s collection. They can call attention to how much is not on view and how museums make choices about what to display. Sample turns his attention to protest bots, which in some ways provide interpretation for our present historical moment. His examples are fascinating, but he imposes an extensive and strict set of criteria, and I wonder if he could end up excluding some interesting bot projects.
Dragan Espenschied’s “Big Data, Little Narration,” cleverly presented as a series of text messages, goes a step further and examines not just how we interpret history with technology, but how we interpret the history of technology. It contrasts Google Zeitgeist, a visualization of searches made in different cities, with a tumblr project to share old Geocities pages. Both share the history of what we do with technology, but Zeitgeist has no real interpretive frame and doesn’t invite further exploration. The Geocities project, on the other hand, invites further user interpretation of these old pages. It makes the pages communicative again, which is exactly what they were designed for in the first place.
Inviting the Public In
If we shift gears and look at the Sheila Brennan article, that same idea of inviting the public to engage comes through. She focuses on digitally opening collections. By providing item-level information and metadata online, we can invite users to explore collections in greater depth than they ever could in person, and to engage with multiple perspectives. When collections are displayed in the almost-infinite digital space, rather than in the very finite physical gallery space, there’s room for more than one narrative.
This call to invite the public in brings us full circle, back to Re-Collection. Ippolito and Rinehart don’t just discuss social memory, they also break it down into formal and informal types. Formal social memory is carried out by museums, libraries, and other institutions, but there’s also room for the informal social memory of amateurs and the general public. In many cases, informal practitioners are more willing to embrace flexible forms of preservation, like migration and emulation, while formal institutions lag behind with their insistence on storing the original copy. If we want to preserve old websites, or video games, or other digital media, letting the public take part in the process is often useful and may even be necessary.
While they examine different aspects of the issue, all six of these texts fundamentally agree that the way we collect, preserve, display, and interpret history will have to change I response to the explosion of digital media. It’s a big topic, and I’d love to hear your overall thoughts on it, but here are few specific questions to get us started:
- When looking at a digital artifact or project, is there such a thing as a single, definitive original? How do we define what’s important about the “original” version of something for the purposes of preservation?
- How can institutions grapple with the additional resources and maintenance required to keep digital collections usable? Will this change funding structures, archival practices, and relationships with donors?
- Espenschied mentions how the youngest viewers of the Geocities tumblr are sometimes confused by unfamiliar aspects of early-2000s technology. When exhibiting digital content, do we need to interpret and contextualize the medium as well as the content?