When trying to understand this week’s readings together I could only think of one thing: cake. Maybe it’s all the baking competition shows I’ve been watching, but I’ve got cake on the brain.
This metaphor first came to mind when reading “Digital Curation as Communication Mediation.” In one of the examples of the encoding of digital information, an email is sent between two people and the information passes through different layers to be able to be sent, going from the layer that we see, all the way down to the individual bits, then back up to a level that is interpretable by people, mediated through a screen. That can obviously be applied to a cake metaphor, with each layer of the cake as a different layer of digital media. But it can go so much further than this.
I first read Trevor’s chapter to get a handle on this week’s topic and quickly realized that it would be a more technical week than the past few. Not that OAIS flow charts aren’t technical, but that’s a kind of technical that I can understand. Enter the cake metaphor! We always think of digital media as being something that isn’t tangible, it most definitely is. Even a picture of a cake is still a representation of a physical cake and how we see that image of a cake on a screen is the result of very physical processes on a hard drive or other sort of storage media; a cake that is stored in the cloud is still stored in some sort of server farm in the middle of Nebraska. We can’t understand the cake just by looking at it, we have to taste it and look at all of its layers to understand it. To preserve just the image of the cake is artifactual preservation, while trying to recreate its taste and look is informational and represents an interaction with the original cake. Both of these are ways to represent the cake, just from wholly different perspectives.
How then can we extend the cake metaphor to Digital Forensics? Well, it’s the same sort of layer phenomenon described in “Digital Curation.” When investigating digital material, it is important to understand all of the layers of the cake, not just the outside. The outside is how the digital material looks on a screen or on its outermost layer, but that may not be everything and only looking at the layers can confirm or deny that. (Explained without the cake on page 8 of “Digital Forensics”). Of course, unlike with cake, you have to be able to read the data on each layer which may be complicated through obsolete technology. Think about tasting cake without being able to taste or smell; you know it is cake, but not what kind. Knowing what kind of cake is important for the cake preservers because you can’t write a finding aid for the cake without knowing what it is. You then have to confirm that how you understood the cake layers is how they originally were, making sure that people trust you, the cake preserver. This could be done through documenting the cake (or the digital object if we don’t think in the metaphor) when it first arrived and passed through all of the different people before it arrived at the cake repository. It gets stickier with digital objects because it is harder to tell if the object has been edited or changed (especially with date and time metadata). The only thing that can be done in this sort of situation is to give as much information as possible. Of course if the donator of the cake does not want the cake to be completely investigated then as much preservation work that is possible must be done, but without violating the donor’s trust.
This brings up a lot of the discussion that we had last week about not violating a donor’s wishes when it came to their digital and how to not violate their trust. Instead of having a deeper understanding through these readings, I’m still not sure – other than trying to get the agreement as clear as possible. Does anyone else have a real answer to the question of donor relations with digital objects after this week’s readings?
When looking to preserve this digital object (or the cake), how the object is going to be used determines how it should get preserved. Is the information the most important part? If it just needs to look the same, put it in a stable format and store it forever. Like a cake made out of styrofoam, it gives the same visual information but does not have all of the underlying layers but it will last longer. Is it important for the researcher to have the whole view of the object and all of its layers? Then the cake needs to be replicated in a more stable form, but with its layers intact. Instead of being run through an emulator, the digital object is held on a piece of legacy hardware or one of the Rosetta Stone computers, or is copied into a different file form that still has the same physical presence of the original cake. Both of these methods preserve the cake, just in different ways. What the cake metaphor does help with is understanding that if there are going to be layers, most of them have to be there for it to be a cake. An object is not solely its metadata, the rest of the object has to be there as well.
Neither form of preservation advocates for leaving the digital object un-investigated. In “Towards a Grammatology of the Hard Drive” Kirschenbaum is against the notion of the hard drive as a black box into which we shovel data. The hard drive represents a very physical way of understanding how our data is stored and the limitations of that storage (even as it appears that we will be able to save everything in the next few years). Not (metaphorically) breaking the hard drive apart to study and understand it is like leaving the cake uncut; you don’t see the layers and you don’t completely understand the media or the data encoded on it until you can see the layers. This then creates problems with digital preservation because a repository made need the data preserved with all of its layers and the preserver (who doesn’t crack it open) is just handing back a styrofoam replica of an object that needs full functionality.
Styrofoam, despite its negative connotations, is not a bad way to store a representation of a cake but it doesn’t retain the information that may need to be accessible to fully understand the object. I don’t know enough about digital objects at this point to know if a representation of something (like the captures of the websites preserved by the Library of Congress or the Internet Archive) can have enough functionality to still be used in a similar way. There still is no one way to preserve a digital object and maybe styrofoam works better than I realize.