We all know that what’s on the internet usually stays on the internet. But what about obsolete sites? Systems rendered inaccessible as technology changes? Parts of the internet that once played a huge role in the internet’s evolution, but have since fallen into obscurity? People are out there collecting it (let’s hear it for the Wayback Machine), but the question falls on preservation. How to collect, preserve, and make accessible this digital culture and history?
Sebastian Chan and Aaron Cope’s paper “Collecting the Present: Digital Code and Collections,” written for the 2014 Museums and the Web conference, addresses how museums should preserve and acquire in the day and age where born digital artifacts are quickly becoming the norm.
Chan and Cope start by covering MOMA acquiring the “@” symbol – how that works, what the logistics are behind it, the decision-making process. They move on to a few different design museums, leading up to a focus on the Cooper-Hewitt museum. There, they quote the museums’ founders expressing a wish to pass on an “artistic tradition” more than just a collection of objects.
Chan and Cope focus the rest of the paper on this interaction between “original” artifacts and the propagation of design and intent – specifically in a world where those artifacts are born digital. As they are focused on the museum approach, they discuss the issues behind acquisitions, legal rights, sources codes, and preservation.
To do this, they use the example of a program called Planetary.
Planetary was a system made by a now defunct company called Bloom in 2011. Planetary would transform users’ music libraries into solar systems and galaxies by categorizing planets and orbits along factors like artists, albums, and track lengths.
In preserving Planetary, Chan and Cope state the preservation strategy was to open source the code with a Berkeley Software Distribution license, so that anyone anywhere could access and use the code without permission. Not only is the code open sourced, but the code’s history and all its bugs and tweaks are also made available – so people can not only use the code but also understand how it came to be. They host the code on Github, so they’re able to keep an “original” code while users download and modify alternate copies.
Putting the code out there as a preservation strategy allows a focus on “design and intent,” as Chan and Cope put it. Derivative works are a way to preserve Planetary. After all, if the original company were still around, it’s possible Planetary would have gone through a number of evolutions at this point. Because technology evolves, does that mean best preservation is allowing that evolution in the spirit of the project?
Chan and Cope end on the note that there is more and more an issue of “inaccessible history,” quoting Ben Fino-Radin from Rhizmo’s Artbase. As technology changes and renders some digital history inaccessible, they believe the responsibility falls to the creators to maintain projects and ensure longevity. This might not be an unfair assessment – but as the number of creators willing to assume such responsibility remains low, the role of museums in collection and preservation of digital history becomes more complex.
Speaking of Rhizmo, Dragan Espenschied’s “Big Data, Little Narration” digs further into Artbase. As an employee of Rhizmo, Espenschied has published a mix of their manuscript and transcript of their keynote/closing lecture at the 2014 Digital Preservation conference on the Rhizmo site. In this lecture, Espenschied digs deeper into Artbase.
The presentation and format of the paper might come across as obnoxious at first to those who don’t expect it, and might not seem to contribute much at first beyond showing where the laugh breaks were.
But one thing the form does do is put the audience into the conversation. The emojis might not be entirely fulfilling, but Espenschied also includes tweets audience members who tagged the talk.
This means that Espenschied’s lecture followed the age-old saying, “Show, don’t tell.”
Of course, since it’s a lecture, Espenschied also tells. But it supports one of the lecture’s primary tenants: Users must be included.
Espenschied focuses his lecture on digital culture, and the question of how to historicize by focusing on Artbase, founded in 1999 as a “collection of born digital artifacts in a user generated archive.” What particularly interested him though, was how Artbase went from a base platform where people uploaded art, into a static archive – the connection between the archive, the user, and usability.
Espenschied brings up two examples when talking about the necessary link in digital culture and history between performance and activity.
First, he shows an example of how Google decided to present popular 2014 New Years Searches: a globe that lists the popular searches according to major city. He spins the globe to show the features to the audience, but concludes the globe is just bad.
The issue with the globe is: there’s no relevance.
The globe uses user activity to support the database designer, but there’s no interaction, no method to prompt more user activity. As Espenschied puts it, it’s an endpoint. Relevance, for digital history, is making it an entry point.
To that effect, Espenschied brings up a project he’d been co-leading on collecting and preserving Geocities.
He shows how they were staging contextualized screenshots of Geocities pages and posting them on Tumblr. Uploading them on a blog platform with younger users, Espenschied argues, means that digital culture and history becomes an entry point. Users can share and upload the screenshots to other platforms. It becomes a conversation starter, and leads to further user activity.
Both articles by Chan and Cope and Epenschied bring up interesting questions on how to collect and preserve born digital artifacts. Clearly, the approaches differ based on the institution and background, whether a museum or media company is making the decisions, whether the individual is inclined to follow more academic or artistic methodology.
I do think a really interesting question is about responsibility – does the creator have the responsibility to ensure their digital projects are preserved? If not, who does? Or should? And if creators aren’t willing to assume that responsibility, does that mean it’s effectively death of the creator and open sourcing codes is the next step?