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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.

First control of the self, then control of the collections. via NARA, ARC #558218

First control of the self, then control of the collections. via NARA, ARC #558218

There’s kind of nothing as terrifying as associative labor. I think it’s fairly clear that we’ve adopted most of Fourier’s prescriptions for the workplace and, far from emancipating the worker, only solidified the managerialists’ grasp on us inputs:

1. That every laborer be a partner, remunerated by dividends and not by wages. The to-each-according-to-his-ability crowd loves employee ownership, defined-contribution benefits, management retreats / coaching / mentoring, etc.

2. That every one, man, woman, or child, be remunerated in proportion to the three faculties, capital, labor, and talent.
Ditto. Pay for performance for everyone, all the way down to school funding hinging on test results.

3. That the industrial sessions be varied about eight times a day, it being impossible to sustain enthusiasm longer than an hour and a half or two hours in the exercise of agricultural or manufacturing labor. Actually, I think we skipped this one.

4. That they be carried on by bands of friends, united spontaneously, interested and stimulated by very active rivalries. Teams are the great Satan of workplace culture. Teamwork and groupiness are the most pervasive of the neo-Fourierist interventions; opposing teamwork is a priori bad. Who wants to be not-a-team-player? Who wants to be a rogue actor? Dissent minimized, check.

5. That the workshops and husbandry offer the laborer the allurements of elegance and cleanliness. …but not the capacity to actually live for himself in a clean environment. My workplace is cleaner than my house BECAUSE I AM ALWAYS THERE INSTEAD OF HERE. The neighborhood of my workplace is cleaner and more secure than my neighborhood because I am always there and not here.

6. That the division of labor be carried to the last degree, so that each sex and age may devote itself to duties that are suited to it. Because we know in advance what duties we’re suited to, or Fourier knows. I mean, we laugh at the naive rationalism of the 18th century, but any vision of complete and over-arching order applied to human affairs should give us all the heebie-jeebies.

7. That in this distribution, each one, man, woman, or child, be in full enjoyment of the right to labor or the right to engage in such branch of labor as they may please to select, provided they give proof of integrity and ability. Choosing not to choose is of course not an option. Participants only! Also, before we commit you to this unchosen choice, please provide certification from an accredited authority of your integrity and ability.

What is it that archivists — professional, skilled, highly-educated, broadly-speaking well-paid workers — have a stake in? Why are professional workers compelled to identify their work in terms of investment, growth and return on investment? So, to rephrase, what is it that we’re committing ourselves to? Whatever it is, I’m pretty sure continuous self-improvement and rectification of the workflows isn’t it. So what is it that management science offers us, apart from initiation into the cult of self-worship and bodily discipline on capitalism’s behalf which has been with us since wackjob aristocrats started ennobling the industrious wasp and the busy beaver?

Arrangement defeating bulk. William H. Smock, Buckaroos in Paradise, via LoC American Memory

When we grow a retention schedule, either by defining new classes of records to be retained, or by stretching their retention period, is research intentionally suffocated, or just accidentally drowned?

In 2011, a guy looking for protection under 2302 came to Sen. Charles Grassley with testimony that the SEC had been destroying records of investigations into securities fraud. These quasi-investigations were called matters-under-inquiry.

Matters-under-inquiry are to investigative case files as sour mash is to bourbon. MUI records are created by low-level SEC staffers based on reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. If you believe this source, MUIs are barely anything more than a flag in an SEC database designed to assign tasks to staff. The whole point of MUI is to determine which allegations, substantiated by evidence, can move forward to full investigation, with subpoena power behind it. MUI records are therefore on retention because our legal system enshrines presumption of innocence: the MUI which doesn’t merit an investigation is a record of no evidentiary value. Valueless records of hearsay, rumor and fiction have of course been collected over the years, by people like this, but it’s not something democracies should be doing.

Apart from being Stasi-like, is permanent retention of materials gathered in an informal, preliminary or half-assed inquiry bad for some other reason? MUIs are of the unique category of records of things which didn’t happen. And that’s philosophically pretty interesting, but the argument beneath the umbrage — Matt Taibbi’s sputtering rage, totally innocent of how records management works or what it’s for, with a fourteen-year-old’s “discovery” of Orwell undergirding the spiel, is exemplary — was that the records document the decision-making capacity of the SEC, namely, that the MUIs show what the SEC pursues by showing what it declines to pursue. It’s history drawn in negative space.

More legitimately, you could argue that MUI records should be kept because we in the present don’t get final cut on history. Who knows whether the Hay, Nicolay or Bliss text, or some other stack of napkins and newsprint was what Lincoln read from? Good thing we have all these variants, history is complex and heteroglossic, we have no idea what researchers will actually use in the future so be humble about appraisal, and err on appraising everything in.

Ultimately, as people with hermeneutic power and right over institutional collections, the broad populism of our favorite strategies conceals an unacknowledged wish: that bulk might stunt the inquirer’s attention, that transparent yet boring proceedings are per se opaque, that raw bureaucratic production might dull the blade of the “necessary and sufficient”-standard.

And as more of our records become less physical, the lure of deep and broad acquisition beckons. But that wasn’t the case in 1981, when MUIs as a document class first came into being. These were papers which, to keep due process afloat, are better off dead than alive. There are some things that are ephemeral by their nature, and some whose ephemerality we have to enforce to avoid turning archives any further into surveillance mechanisms.

Finally, the more we bring in, and the finer-toothed our description of it, the narrower the difference between history and the lived present. Our representations of historical sources dissolve to become replicas. The paradox of cataloging, that our broken speech reveals the inner nature of what’s described more than a literal transcription ever could, is completely annihilated, and we swim or drown in a sea of trivialities, chattel of the pale king.