digital objects and determining value

This week’s readings were widespread in their content and at times had me feeling a bit at sea with the detailed descriptions of hard drive technology, digital forensics, file formats, etc. (There’s nothing like reading these kinds of things to remind me that I’m nowhere near as technologically proficient as I’d like to think.) I’m grateful for Prof. Owens’ book since it describes digital media and their structures in an accessible, understandable way. I’ll briefly recap his three key points laid out in chapter two, since I saw these ideas echoed throughout the other readings.
1. “All digital information is material.”
Such a basic fact, and yet (as the book mentions) I generally think of my personal digital files in abstract terms, like being lost “in the cloud” or behind this mysterious wall, because my technological know-how is limited.
2. The logic of digital media and computational systems is “the logic of database.”
People interact with digital objects much differently than they engage with analog media. Since databases are ordered based on the query asked of them, digital information can and will always be presented in a myriad of arrangements.
3. “Digital systems are platforms layered on top of each other.”
This one took me a little longer to understand, but I take it to mean that every digital object has multiple informational layers which people are often unaware of. Depending on what someone is studying or looking for, they are going to care about preserving certain layers of the object over others. And these layers are often interdependent on each other.

While reading, I kept thinking of how much we take for granted as we use all of our various devices to function in the world, and the enormous amounts of data and media that will be left behind once we are gone. This quote from the Kirschenbaum article sums up my questions perfectly: “ […] how do these accumulations, these massive drifts of data, interact with irreducible reality of lived experience?” Within the digital preservation field, how do we reconcile that tension between the materiality of our digital footprints and the ephemeral, intangible stuff of life? I’m personally not convinced that you can fully capture someone’s working or personal environment through their digital papers, even with emulation of their computer (thinking of the Salman Rushdie anecdote from the Digital Forensics report). Or even from an ethical standpoint that it’s always advisable. How do we know what digital information is worth saving or recovering, and who deserves access to it?

As the Digital Forensics report points out, it is not immediately clear what digital items are going to have historical or cultural value in the future, making it harder to know what to preserve. And then how can professionals adequately preserve relationships between different items, events, and media (a random aside–the Jackson Citizen Patriot is my hometown’s newspaper. I did a big double take when I read about the photo of the snowmobilers’ accident and its significance.)? This reminded me of our conversation last week about authorial intent, as well. If a creator doesn’t wish for their entire digital footprint to be saved indefinitely (or saved at all), but there is potential cultural value to their information, whose concerns are prioritized? I have a lot of mixed feelings about this. As mentioned before, Trump would love to cover his tracks–he tries daily, either by literally tearing up memos or obfuscating and lying. But the office of the Presidency is bound by laws that prevent this (or try to), and I doubt anyone would argue that these records are not necessary for future generations. Perhaps the question should be, at what point does a person become so culturally or historically influential that their wishes about their data are overridden by other, more pressing concerns?

The Chan & Cope article address these questions from an institutional standpoint. As a museum studies student I was both fascinated by their argument and struggled with it. I definitely like “the stuff” of museums. While I visit museums to be engaged and to relax, oftentimes what draws me to an exhibit (particularly art museums) is a particular piece or an artist whose works I love. I agree with Chan & Cope that collection strategies should serve a different purpose today; there should be a real intention behind acquisition that goes beyond prestige or hoarding mentality.

However, I’m not quite convinced that a “post-objects curatorial practice” is the natural solution. And is it really “post-objects” if a museum instead exhibits the contextual documents surrounding a systems design? The piece that was missing for me was, does a “post-objects” approach reflect the needs of a museum’s community? Collecting a contemporary, provocative item (digital or analog) might generate a lot of buzz, but will it mean something to the average museum-goer beyond taking a selfie with said object? Relevance isn’t necessarily about what’s trending in the moment (btw, The Art of Relevance, a book by Nina Simon, is an excellent read that explores this topic in the museum field in depth).

I realize I have more questions than definitive ideas or opinions in this post. Interested to share more thoughts and discussion with everyone in the week to come!

13 Replies to “digital objects and determining value”

  1. Hi Tricia! You address a lot of provocative lines of thought in your summary (which I’m sure is going to generate some interesting discussion this week) but in the interest of getting the ball rolling I’ll just respond to one of them.

    I like how you reintroduced the line of authorial intent in digital curation from class last week. I agree that the readings this week further “muddy the water” as it were, in how we, as aspiring archivists and librarians, should approach the extent to which sensitive information may be available, especially while the subject may still be alive. As some of our readings note, this isn’t exactly a new phenomenon. Researchers have used the materiality of archival material to deduce more information about an object beyond it’s surface informational value. Yet, as Kirschenbaum especially notes, the immateriality of digital information can mask the extent to which this phenomenon is present in our computers, mobile devices, smart appliances, you name it. Dig a little ways down and new avenues for uncovering information come to light, whether the creator knew of their existence or not.

    To your point about what our responsibility is in aiding or restraining research into the layers of digital information, I really think our first step is to disperse with the misinformation surrounding digital information. The readings this week were eye opening for me in that regard. The convergence of networked information, unlimited storage, and an inscription technology that’s hard to destroy make the types of digital information both appealing in its sheer capabilities and slightly terrifying in how it follows a person around (my high school emails come to mind, no one needs to read that level of angst). Donor agreements, as the digital forensics article observes, can be a useful approach to structuring the extent to which this information can be available in an archive by setting the terms agreeable to both parties.

    Yet, are there cases where the informational value can override the creator’s wishes? As you note, President Trump’s recent inclination towards evidentiary destruction makes a case for intervention. The difference here, as opposed to, say, Salman Rushdie’s records, is that these documents have a deeper impact on the very functionings of our society. If Rushdie’s records were kept hidden it may be a great cultural loss for the community but would it shake governmental actions and policy? Probably not. To echo the favorite phrase of every archivist and librarian when broached with such a question, “It depends.”

    1. Hi Gwen,
      Yes, I think one of the most valuable roles info professionals fill is debunking misinformation–in this case, about digital info. I tend to be a bit fatalistic about my personal data; online privacy seems like a distant pipe dream now. But working at a public library for a few years made me realize the extent of people’s general ignorance and misconceptions about technology and internet use. It’s impossible to avoid any risk of data/privacy breaches today, but enabling people to make informed choices about their online activity can at least mitigate the likelihood that sensitive data will be leaked without their consent.

  2. I have to admit I rolled my eyes at the idea of MOMA acquiring the @ symbol. Sure, I get the argument for why it is a sociologically valid addition, but I couldn’t help feeling it was an overwrought attempt to create clickbait… a curatorial jumping of the shark, if you will. Still I can appreciate it as yet another thought experiment like the one from last week regarding the documentation of dance. Once again, our only true options for preserving the concept of an @ symbol are to preserve its instantiations as examples. Like the videos and notation of dance, these are but shadows and reflections of the actual experience, but they are shadows endowed with materiality. And that materiality makes them better than nothing. A lot of our discussions so far this semester seem intent on helping us find a suitable balance in an imperfect situation and helping us accept the fact that a perfect solution may not exist. I have appreciated the pragmatism of this.

    I was also interested in your thoughts on digital systems being layered on top of each other. When this concept was first introduced I was thinking exclusively about variables that were extrinsic to the file itself: operating system, application, network protocols, etc. It wasn’t until reading Lee’s Handbook of Technical Communication that I grasped the same concept you outline above, that layers don’t stop at the file level. And therefore neither does the file’s ability to be treated as a database and viewed in a multitude of different ways. I hope we get to learn some practical skills that leverage this ability.

    1. No, don’t worry–I rolled my eyes too when I read that. And then wondered why they didn’t acquire the # instead, because that almost seems more relevant.

      The Lee article helped me conceptualize the idea of layers as well. This in particular: “The properties of information at a given level of representation are directly based upon, but are not fully reducible to, properties of information at the level immediately below it. Each level has emergent properties, which convey potential meaning that is not available through any of the other layers. This is because moving between layers always involves a process of translation that both adds and removes information.”

  3. As much as Google wants me to respond to the question “at what point does a person become so culturally or historically influential that their wishes about their data are overridden by other, more pressing concerns?” with “Everyone! Always!” because Google wants to store my .6 GB of emails and hate when I delete the Maryland Today that comes into my inbox every morning.

    But we are all, first and foremost, archivists. Not everything is or should be kept. In the case of our current president, statutes on governmental record-keeping decide that we have to keep what he tears to shreds. In the case of a more historical or cultural relevance, it (unfortunately) depends on who thinks their materials are culturally relevant to donate. Franz Kafka wanted everything burned, but a friend named Max saved his manuscripts because Max thought they were worth it. Repositories can seek donors through their alumni or community networks but the donors have to be willing to give over their materials.

    I guess it’s not really a matter of wide-ranging cultural or historical impact, but enough of an impact for someone to give the papers to someone else, whether it’s a college, local historical society or a presidential library. Decisions like this are made by archivists but first they are made by families and friends or the law.

    1. Marguerite Rose, you make a great point about it depending on “who thinks their materials are culturally relevant to donate.” Whose stories and histories matter?
      So often these decisions aren’t made equally, logically or consistently, but instead are influenced by pure chance, systemic power imbalances, and/or personal decisions spurred by emotion.

    2. And THIS is why outreach is so important in our field. For way too long, archives have contributed to (I’d even argue, cemented) that stereotype of being “for” a certain type of person or figure, those who were deemed “important enough.” As a result, we’ve got gaps and silences in the historical record that will never be filled. But like a lot of the stuff we read in our MLIS classes, I feel both frustrated AND hopeful that we are acknowledging these problems, and taking steps to change the way we operate. No, we shouldn’t (and can’t) keep everything, but we can all be aware of representation in our institutions and make an effort to be diverse and culturally relevant!

  4. Tricia, I am glad you brought up the example of the emulation of Salman Rushdie’s Macintosh Performa 5400 from the digital forensics article. In class, we had talked about the idea of using digital forensics to take what is analogous to an “x-ray” of the contents of an electronic media format or computer system, but I hadn’t considered the idea of recreating someone’s personal computer as an archival object. I’m intrigued by what researchers 25, 50, or 100 years down the road will make of Rushdie’s computer. The article suggests that preserving digital files in this way will allow researchers to better understand the environment in which the files were created, and by implication, better understand Rushdie and his writing. I wish I could peer into the future and see how this might play out–will researchers be analyzing his desktop background, the organization and naming of his digital files, and the type of word processor used in the same way that researchers now analyzing handwritten manuscript pages for clues about the author’s intent and mindset? What insights could be gleaned from access to Rushdie’s computer that could not be gleaned from digital files alone?

    You also brought up the point that preservation of this kind can be ethically problematic. In the article, it specifically mentions how digital forensics of this kind can “accidentally” capture information that might be an invasion of privacy–such as the contents of a recycling bin, internet browsing history, or temporary or hidden files. You ask, “How do we know what digital information is worth saving or recovering, and who deserves access to it?” I think it is important to have policies in place, developed in partnership with the donor when possible, that prevent digital forensics from becoming an inappropriate invasion of privacy. However, I also think it is important to consider the point made by Mark Bernstein (quoted on 106 of “Extreme Inscription”) that we are moving towards an era when “it often costs more to decide to throw something away than to save it forever.” It will be a dilemma for archivists to decide what level of scrutiny is appropriate in the MPLP era to devote to digital objects when just saving everything will often be the most time-efficient and cost-saving option.

    1. Tracee,

      I got really peeved when I read the statement you quoted from Mark Bernstein, the “it often costs more to decide to throw something away than to save it forever.” To be fair, I don’t think he was thinking from an archival point of view, but if he were then he would know that our profession is not only about preservation, but access. Sure, it could be easier to save all billion and 1 junk emails that I get from rewards clubs I’ve signed up for or coupons, or viruses, but do those have any intrinsic value? One could argue that it has evidentiary value that I often ate at Unos or ignored emails from Game Stop, but no one needs to see that each sent me 3 a day for 10 years until I finally unsubscribed from the mailing list. In addition, if I were to keep all those emails, it would be harder to find the email that said when an internship fair was, or if I got a job, or that my grandma was sending her love (despite having a search function.)

      In addition to it being part of our job to keep the “important” stuff, it can also go back to the basics of money and space. As Owen’s book, and Tricia pointed out above, “all digital information is material.” Just because we have the technology to keep everything doesn’t mean that we have the money to keep it in a usable format, or buy more equipment to back that information up and store it in three separate catastrophe areas to prevent the destruction of that information (especially with constant threats of losing federal and state funding.) I think Owen’s statement put it into perspective for me, as it did Tricia, that just because it’s on the internet or in the cloud, doesn’t mean that there isn’t a “hard copy” stored on a server in the middle of a windmill farm in South Dakota (I don’t know where the server farms actually are.) At some point someone, aka archivists, needs to say wait, we don’t actually need all this. I pity the archivist, and the researcher trying to obtain information, who will have to type up the metadata and create an access system for a society that keeps Everything.

      1. Jen, I also think there’s something absurd about the Bernstein quote. I’d imagine that the key to his meaning is in the word “decide,” i.e., it costs more to go through a decision process on whether to save, etc., than just to keep it. Still, as you point out, that decision process is only the beginning of preservation.

        I think you’re right that it comes down to access. I remember when people started eschewing taking snapshots in favor of videotaping life’s events. I couldn’t imagine how often anyone could watch an entire video of a little league game to get to that one catch or hit that made it worthwhile. All optimism about the lifespan of magnetic tape aside, wouldn’t they just prefer some representative snapshots that they could have quick access to more often? Quantity of information can obscure the point of preservation.

      2. Jen, I agree with you in principle that not everything should be saved and that excessive “clutter” can impede access. With that being said, I also understand the reality that taking the time to do appraisal can really slow down projects and limit our ability to make other collections accessible. I think that one way to approach the problem is to adjust our level of scrutiny depending on the significance of the records creator and the potential for future use. In some cases, it may be simpler to keep everything if the person was particularly noteworthy-I’m thinking of something like NARA’s Capstone approach for email. One downside, though, is that this is more of a top-down approach which could potentially create more imbalances and gaps like the ones that Margaret Rose and Perri describe above.

        1. Emily, you make a great point. I’m glad you point out the downside though, because I think it’s an important one – so much of what we learn about “being archivists” is about paying attention to user needs and demands, which makes us more driven to process collections that we already know users will want, like notable people with name-recognition. My issue with that is, how will users know what they want if they don’t know those collections are there in the first place? The decisions that archivists make shouldn’t only “reflect” user needs, they should drive them as well… I feel it is one of our duties to bring collections to the light that would previously have stayed unprocessed and untouched, exactly because of that reason. Even though appraisal and processing takes a lot of time, if we keep too much clutter from a select few collections it impedes our ability to take in a more diverse range of smaller collections. Maybe we need a new mantra like MPLP, but for accessioning! Fewer “huge” collections, more smaller ones!

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