As many of us grew up in a technological age, full of digital pets (tamagotchi, anyone?), digital sports (Wii Tennis is the only tennis I will play for fun) and alternate digital lives (Sims, Webkins), we may think we understand what it means for something to be “digital.” However, to fully embrace our roles as digital historians, we must look beyond our simple understanding of the word and look at the history of the digital and what lies beyond what we usually see presented on the screen. Jonathan Sterne’s article will show us how to conceptualize the digital vs. the analog, Caroline Arms and Carl Fleischhauer give us guidelines for preservation practice with various digital formats, and finally Jefferson Bailey’s article demonstrates the journey of physical sources through digital evolutions.
In Jonathan Sterne’s article “Analog,” he discusses the complex lineage of the term “analog” and the increase in its use as the word “digital” began its meteoric rise at the end of the twentieth century. He argues that analysis of the words themselves, their use, and their relationship reveals that the connection between the analog and digital is of better use to us as a complicated web, rather than a stark separation of difference. In order to enrich our historical understanding and broaden our interpretation, we must expand the analytical use of both words. This is accomplished by seeing them not only in opposition to one another, but as strange companions in the interpretation of history. Listing the digital as a “villain” does nothing for us as historians, in the same way that a nostalgia for “analog days” teaches us nothing about history. If we cling to the commonly accepted binary of digital/analog and equate it with even more accepted binaries such as material/immaterial, real/symbolic, we lose the richness of the word and lessen its analytical power. Sterne argues against these accepted conceptions of reality and argues for the use of media theory as an alternative:
“These are cherished fallbacks, but they actually push us away from some of the
most important questions media theory can ask today: how meaning and collectivity work together; how symbols and technologies both define what it means to be human and how humans fit into the larger world, ethically, ecologically, politically, historically; and
how we might live well in the large-scale societies we now inhabit.” (42)
Sterne ultimately argues for the use of media theory to expand conceptual understanding of the digital by moving past the digital/analog binary. Now that we’ve opened our minds to the breadth of interpretation for the digital, we can look at the complexity of digital formats in Caroline Arms and Carl Fleischhauer’s guidelines from the Library of Congress. They track the detailed specifics of preservation and best practice in digital formats for different file types. I won’t get into too many details, but the content is important for us as historians to consider for the future of preservation in the digital world and in our own projects to know what will be sustainable and what may become unusable over time.
Jefferson Bailey demonstrates both the potential degradation of materials over time, their reuse and their evolution through formatting by providing a biography of TAGOKOR’s “life.” TAGOKOR is a “file [that] contains 109,975 records, detailing twenty different categories of casualties, including those killed, wounded, hospitalized, missing in action, and captured.” Bailey analyzes the use and custodial care of the record collection as it worked its way through various digital formats. He argues that the “regenerative nature of preserved records” allows them to be reinterpreted and gives them a “parallel history” through the history of their preservation.
“And so the biography of TAGOKOR, like all archival records, is one both already written and never completed, both continually becoming and terminally changeless, forever poised between incident and encoding, articulation and preservation, record and reinterpretation, finality and vitality.”
Each of these articles give us new ideas and information to ponder as we move forward in class. Do we need to define the words we use in describing the digital/analog worlds? What are the benefits of defining it? What does Jonathan Sterne say is the best approach to the analog/digital dichotomy? How can we use the Library of Congress guidelines as historians (digital or otherwise)? Is it every historian’s job to understand the potential degradation of digital materials and actively make choices to prevent the loss of the source? What does the evolution of the TAGOKOR file teach us about preservation? How does the way that we preserve things change the object itself? Does this cast doubt on archived materials? Or simply open the door to further, more complex forms of analysis?
All fabulous things to think about, and discuss, next time we meet. Until then, happy reading! Drop any questions for me in the comments or any topics you’d like to make sure we talk about together.