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!