Digital Preservation is Hard

Actually, any kind of historical or archival preservation is hard: in general, the “significance” of an entity is a complex social context.

As I have often remarked, preserving Henry Aaron’s uniform, however carefully done, cannot really portray the significance of his career, his significant in American race relations, what it meant for a black man to break Babe Ruth’s record—in Atlanta!—in the 1970s and so on.

These problems are even more acute in the case of “digital preservation”. Preserving a collection of bits is difficult enough, and rarely sufficient to be particularly meaningful.

I often point out that my own academic work from the 1990’s is mostly “preserved” somewhere, including images of official thesis papers. Many of the files are difficult to actually process (Postscript Version 1.x is not supported by contemporary tools!), and any software is completely junk: the technical context and software stack no longer exist.  (How many of you even know what “Xenix” was?)  In fact, these facts were not even documented at the time, so who knows what would be needed to recreate the context?  If you even wanted to, which no one does.

So the work is basically gone, except for whatever words and pictures I may have left behind.

David P. Anderson writes in Communications of the ACM about these same challenges when trying to “preserve” digital art works, which, he correctly terms “Hybrid Objects” [1]. By this term, he means that the overall “object” of interest has both digital and other component. As he says, “artworks are not ‘only’ digital…and any preservation approach that does not acknowledge this is doomed to failure.” (p.45)

To back up a bit, why would we even care about “preserving” digital works of any kind?

The primary reason must surely be a desire to make the culture and knowledge of the past (and present) available to future generations. It is impossible to preserve everything, and equally impossible to know that people in the future will wish we had preserved. But surely it is worth trying to preserve “significant” things, so that they might be available in the future.

In the case of digital artworks, or, I would say, most digital “objects”, the entire point is how the user (?) experiences and interacts with it. Art projects may now employ hardware and software which can, in principle, be preserved and recreated in the future. But they also may employ data from live streams, from the Internet (e.g., search results) or social media. These works may visualize contemporary life in ways that are extremely interesting or beautiful, but totally ephemeral and irreproducible. Furthermore, digital artworks can be interactive, enabling the “user” or users to participate in the expression.

Anderson’s main point is that “any inclination one may have to believe that preserving artworks is primarily a matter of developing an appropriate set of software tools and workflows, is quite mistaken.” (p. 46) He is also right on target to say that “This is a lesson that is well worth extending into other areas of preservation.” (p.46)

Actually, I would go farther to say that these problems are at the core of all efforts at cultural preservation, digital or otherwise.

Anderson’s thoughtful article also illustrates the value of cross discipline collaborations. As he indicates, his understanding of the field of digital preservation was enlightened by “Working with contemporary artists”, and “spend[ing] time exploring preservation issues” with artists.

My own experience reflects the value of these collaborations, not only for understanding preservation. If you want to understand human computer interaction, you would do well to learn from performing artists (as Brenda Laurel did so long ago [2]). And if you want to build embodied systems, then you really need to work with expert dancers [3].

  1. David P. Anderson, Preserving hybrid objects. Commun. ACM, 59 (5):44-46, 2016.
  2. Brenda Laurel, Computers as Theatre, Reading, MA, Addison Wesley, 1991.
  3. Mary Pietrowicz, Robert E. McGrath, Guy Garnett, and John Toenjes, Multimodal Gestural Interaction in Performance, in Whole Body Interfaces Workshop at CHI 2010. 2010: Atlanta.


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