Digital preservation and the darkness


Not sure the author of this Slate piece ironed out his tone. The takeaways are:

The difference between the 19th century and the 21st is not that 19th century diarists made better records, it’s that we just make more of everything. Norwegian farmers charting rain are just as boring as we are. This is not entirely true. First, because historic studies of climate are based on farmers’ and lighthouse-keepers’ and fishermen’s “boring” diaries. Content doesn’t have to be narrative to be good. Second, documentation is a function of class and of literacy. We have Mary Chesnut and George Templeton Strong because they were erudite scions of the ruling class. We will not have the 21st century version of them because our great cities have 25% adult illiteracy. We will have shallower information because the bar to creating records is now lower than the bar to reading or understanding them. You don’t have to be cultured, observant, a mordant wit, or a fount of wisdom to post GIFs to Reddit.

This stuff is going to be accessible in the future because privacy is the only hurdle we have to access. Also not true. Archives are rapidly moving (or have moved, in Europe and the Ivy League mostly) toward a 25-year embargo, not the quoted 75-year restriction. It’s also not a done deal that personal privacy is a thing of the past. Smart people haven’t given up on it yet. But more importantly, you think privacy is the hurdle? The stuff itself is its own failure and darkness. I don’t know my friends by the memes they promulgate; that stuff has a self-destruct device built in. Feeds are built to be ephemeral.

Apart from the content’s innate elusiveness, the real obstacle to access is monopoly control and rent-seeking. We will either design tools to completely crack and harvest Facebook feeds and render WordPress exports faithfully, or we will always be paying Facebook and WordPress to read our thoughts back to us.

It’s initially daunting to think about the bogus junk that will actually make it into the 22nd century, but we’ll have algorithms for all the heavy lifting. No, actually it’s totally and always daunting to think about the river of rat-shit we archivists will all be wading through in the next decade. After which, I’m still holding out for very serious people committing to paper and polyester. I’m not even joking. Who’s going to have better personal papers when they die, me or you? Race you.

I’m going to go ahead and mock my own innate inclination to hate people for their disorganized digital lives. I don’t know why on earth you would do that, because your OCD is all you’ve got. The advice people in digital preservation give to us plebes largely amounts to: sort your email; make clean, meaningful file names; save things in multiple places. It’s mega-Virgo behavior. The kind of housecleaning you do when your car’s about to be repossessed. This is all stuff that will make your life slightly better now, but misses the long haul. Besides which, all this cleanup contradicts the contention that we’ll have big algorithms to sort and make sense of all this stuff: huh? So human beings should clean data so that machines can tell us what the data means? Isn’t that exactly backwards? Put another way: why do we expect the machines of the future to be able to tell the difference between archival material with high intellectual value and dross, but not be able to open files named with commas and spaces?

None of this fussiness — this desperate Lifehacking — seriously, the best way not to be burned by a corrupt USB is to not put significant shit on a USB; those are for viruses and porn and Stuxnet — will make whatever you make persist for the next 100 years. It’s just what we know how to do today. “Today digital archivists use such preservation strategies as redundancy (keeping multiple copies of files in different places) and forward migration (moving files into the latest format so you can still read them).” Fuck, really? Redundancy? Izzat all? Turns out this is just what we knew how to do fifty years ago with carbon paper and microfilm. And migration isn’t a strategy so much as it is a triage tactic, as we desperately try to read the last decade’s files — seriously, why did Word Perfect allow you to make file names with dots in them — in order to tell which ones are shopping lists and which ones are orders to assassinate snitches.

All this work, even if the content were valuable, can hardly be justified in the face of the inaccessibility of 19th and 20th century paper records and our huge profession-wide processing backlog. But the kicker is that the records we’re making in the early 21st century are pick at least one: duplicative, shallow, ephemeral, jejune, vapid. It’s not that we should have feared a digital dark age in the sense of carrier failure and format obsolescence; it’s that we should have feared that ease of communication does not necessarily engender depth of communication. The darkness isn’t in the bits, it’s in us.

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