The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation en Español

The open access version of the Spanish translation of my book The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation is now available online. La teoría y el oficio de la preservación digital was produced by a team of library and information science experts led by Isabel Galina Russell. It was published earlier this year in print by the Instituto de Investigaciones Bibliográficas of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. Now the digital open access version is freely available online. Below are a few images from the book.

I wanted to take a moment here to both share out about this new publication, the journey that brought it about, and share some gratitude for everyone who made it happen.

I’ve been interested in the idea of seeing The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation translated into other languages, particularly into Spanish since I started working on it. The whole point of the book is to try and make digital preservation more accessible, and this translation makes the book much more accessible to the more than half a billion readers and speakers of Spanish. The fact that this translation has been published open access, freely available for anyone to download and read, makes the book all the more accessible.

The Journey of the Text

The idea for this translation came about as a result of an invitation to speak at a conference. In December of 2019 I gave the Conferencia Magistral at the Simposio Internacional de la Maestría en Conservación de Acervos Documentales hosted by the Escuela Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museografía in Mexico City. Below are a few pictures from that visit.

My talk largely focused on the digital preservation axioms that I open the Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation with. Isabel tweeted out about how useful she found those axioms and we went back and forth on Twitter about the possibility of developing a Spanish translation of the book. We ironed out permissions with Johns Hopkins University Press, and then she ran with it. She provides more context, and a screenshot of our exchange on Twitter as part of her introduction to the book. I like that the story of the origin of the translation of the book is contained in her introduction to it.

Gratitude and Thanks

The full team involved in producing the translation includes 15 people, all of whom are experts and thinkers working in library and information science, several of whom I have had the chance to meet and connect with at digital preservation events over the years. I’m including a list of them all below.

  • Pedro Ángeles Jiménez
  • Fernando Cruz Quintana
  • Jimena Escobar Sotomayor
  • Isabel Galina Russell
  • Maribel González González
  • David Alonso Leija Román
  • Norma Aída Manzanera Silva
  • Ana Cecilia Medina Arias
  • Betsabé Miramontes Vidal
  • Jo Ana Morfin
  • Ana Yuri Ramírez Molina
  • Lorena Ramírez López
  • José Antonio Salazar Carmona
  • Pamela Vizner Oyarce

It is a little bit overwhelming to know that this whole team has engaged deeply with this book. While it might seem like a book about digital preservation would be technical and somewhat dry, the book has a good bit of myself in it. It is the first piece of my professional writing where I feel like I could fully bring in my personal voice and point of view. I’ve come to believe that anything that honestly and genuinely engages with the complexities of and issues present in memory work ends up needing to be tied in with our personal memory and personal journeys. This isn’t a technical book, its actually a very personal one.

I’m particularly honored to have had my book translated by experts in digital preservation and library and information science. The work of translation involves such an in depth engagement with a text, and I am deeply grateful for the in depth work that everyone involved engaged in to produce this.

Book Launch Event

Last March, the print version of the book came out, and the Biblioteca Nacional de M?xico hosted an online book launch event with some of the team involved in the translation of the book. If you are curious, you can see a video recording of that event below.

Advance Praise for After Disruption

My next book is a little closer to being fully finished. After working through some thoughtful feedback from peer reviewers I am now reviewing a round of copy edits. In fun news, the book now has a page on the University of Michigan Press website. It also has BISAC subjects, a DOI, and three different ISBNs.

Page for After Disruption on the University of Michigan Press site.

It is really rewarding to see the book becoming more and more finished. This view of the book is particularly exciting in that I also got to seem some advance praise/blurbs from the book that come from two scholars whose work I deeply admire and respect which I have included below.

After Disruption provides a comprehensive analysis of the challenges faced by cultural memory institutions today and suggests how we might get out of the mess we’re in. It critiques modern management theory as applied to libraries to explain how we got ourselves into the mess. And it offers a thoughtful explanation and expansion of the radical futurity/possibility literature on cultural memory to propose ways we might get out of it. This book will be of value to workers in memory institutions, especially libraries and archives, and students interested in working in them.”

Steven Lubar, Brown University

“Trevor Owens’ After Disruption is a highly compelling look into the rhetorical, educational, managerial, and economic histories of the Silicon Valley ideologies that have come to dominate US organizational life and—in particular—the ways those ideologies about the future imperil cultural memory institutions such as libraries, archives, and museums and render the lives of those who work for them precarious.”

—Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Michigan State University

The book cover is now also finished, and I’m really pleased with how that turned out. The cover photo is one I took about a year ago of the “Apple Carnegie Library” in Washington D.C on my iPhone. The story of of that building exemplifies some of the themes that the book engages with.

Reflecting on 2022: Exploring, Growing, and Writing

As a year comes to a close I try to round up and reflect a bit on this unit of time. This year marks a milestone in that reflective practice itself, now being the 10th year I have written one of these posts. You can see my reflections at the end of 2021, 2020,  2019,  2018,   2017, 20152014, 2013, and 2012.

I’m a big fan of metacognition, so I get a lot out of taking time to round up, reflect, and try and synthesize things at least once a year.

Back into the world: Teaching, Working, and Exploring

At the start of 2022 I was still deep in what become my routine for living in the pandemic. After working and teaching from home for roughly two years, I started teaching my digital history seminar in person during the spring semester at American University and started venturing back into the office at the Library of Congress. It was disorientating at first. But it was great to get back in the classroom with my students and while it took some adjusting, I’m really enjoying being back in the office. At this point, I’m going in three days a week and teleworking two days a week. Personally, that feels like a great balance for me.

In the summer, I taught a week long intensive course called “Born Digital/Digital Collections” for California Rare Book School. Teaching a week long intensive class like that virtually was a bit intense, but it was also rewarding to have the chance to connect with bright and engaged current professionals working in libraries and archives.

New Adventures in the New Job

In the summer, I had the distinct honor of being appointed to a new job as the Director of Digital Services. I’m now about six months in this new role and I am deeply grateful for the chance to apply my knowledge and experience across a broader portfolio of areas of digital services. Back in 2017, when I came back to the Library of Congress from IMLS I was really excited about the idea of being able to help grow and support thoughtful and sustainable development of digital programs.

I’m grateful for the chance I had to help build up and support teams doing that creative but sustainable work in that role and I’m doing my best to think about how I can continue to provide that kind of support in my now broader role. So far I’m really pleased with how it’s going.

Getting out there and Exploring

After staying local for 2020 and 2021, this year ended up being a great chance to get back out into the world. If you’re curious, I tend to post a lot of photos of our adventures up on Instagram. In February we took a trip to St. Lucia, in April we went to Portugal, in May I had the chance to spend three weeks consulting on digital strategy at the National Library of Kosovo through the Fulbright program, while in Kosovo we also were able to visit Albania, and in December I tagged along on a work trip Marjee had to visit and explore around the Yucatan.

Each of those trips offered me chances to explore and connect with new cultures and histories. I think we visited more than two dozen cultural heritage sites and museums. Across those experiences, collectively, I think those experiences contribute to a more complex, interwoven, and connected understanding of cultures and communities and the key role that cultural memory work plays in advancing a more sustainable approach to envisioning and enacting a better future.

Getting more words out there

Along with work and travel this ended up being a good year for finishing off and getting a few pieces published that I’d been working on for a while. I had three articles come out each of which grew out of great collaborations. In Library Leadership & Management, Beyond Good Intentions: Developing and Operationalizing Values in the Structure of Digital Library Programs came out. I’m really proud of all the work that team members put in on this to draw out how the values we developed together have grown into key tools we use all the time in our work. Along with that, Ben Lee and I had a Grappling with the scale of born-digital government publications: Toward pipelines for processing and searching millions of PDFs come out in the International Journal of Digital Humanities and Jonah Estes and I had Slide Decks as Government Publications: Exploring Two Decades of PowerPoint Files Archived from U.S. Government Websites come out in Archival Science. It was also a good year for reading, if your curious about the 50 some books I read this year you can see them all on Goodreads.

My biggest writing project this year was getting the manuscript for my next book, After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory, completed and submitted. In January I shared out drafts of the first half of the book for comments. In July I shared out drafts of the second half of it. Huge thanks to everyone who gave me such right and thoughtful comments. I spent the fall revising the drafts based on all that great feedback and sent the full manuscript into the press in November. Early in the spring, I should get comments on the manuscript back from reviewers and then I will dive into any further work I need to do on it from there. This was a fun book to carry with me and be thinking about as I went on trips and worked through transitioning jobs. It’s a bit more personal than previous books I’ve written. In that respect, it represents my own memory work to make sense of my experiences in two decades of work at the intersection of digital technologies and cultural memory work. In any event, I’m excited to carry it with me into next year and hopefully we will see it come out and appear in the 2023 wrap up post on this blog.

New Paper: Slide Decks as Government Publications

I’m excited to share that I have a new paper out, Slide Decks as Government Publications: Exploring Two Decades of PowerPoint Files Archived from U.S. Government Websites, in the journal Archival Science. This paper is a collaboration between myself and Jonah Estess. If you don’t have access to the final version, you can see a preprint of the paper here. It was a lot of fun to work on and I’m thrilled to see it up in print. As a side note, the team at Archival Science was really great to work with. We got really thoughtful peer review feedback and the paper is a lot stronger for it. Below is the abstract, and some images from the piece.


Over the last three decades, US government agencies have published hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of PowerPoint files on the web. Hundreds of thousands of these files have been captured and preserved in web archives. With that noted, it remains difficult to find and interact with these files. This paper analyzes a public dataset of 1,000 PowerPoints from US government websites in the Library of Congress web archives to explore the properties of these kinds of files. This publicly available dataset published in 2019 includes a random sample of a thousand files from the more than 300,000 files that purport a PowerPoint media type in the Library of Congress web archives. The study focuses on characterizing the nature of these publications, the extent to which embedded metadata in these documents could be used to improve access to them and exploring what properties of these files are likely to be important to future users. Exploring these data provides a means to begin to understand the value and nature of PowerPoint files as a format of government publishing and government records.

Gallery of Images and Figures

We included a number of images from specific archived gov PowerPoints and some charts illustrating trends in the data which I’ve pulled out into the image gallery below.

Open Review of the Second Half of “After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory”

I’m excited to be able to share the second half of my next book, After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory with you for input and comments. For more background on the project, you can read the full book proposal for it here. You can also read drafts of the first half of it here.

Like I did with my pervious book, I am posting draft chapters for input from the broader community of memory workers. Each chapter is up in a google doc for anyone to suggest edits on or offer inline comments. Below are links to each chapter.

These are very much in progress drafts. So, I’m interested in any and all feedback and input. I’m interested in any feedback that can help strengthen the project, but I’m also interested in hearing about any parts of it that particularly resonate with readers. To that end, if there are parts that resonate with you feel free to screenshot them and share them on social media and or to add comments attesting to things that you think work well in the chapters. If you do share out about this on twitter please tag me @tjowens. Along with that, I’m particularly interested in any suggestions for work that I should be citing from women, people of color, and early career professionals. I’m also interested for any more scholarship written by memory workers (archivists, librarians, curators, etc.) that I should focus more attention on.

For the next few months, I’m planning to shift to work on revisions on the first chapters. At that point I will post those chapters and shift to work through revising and improving these first four chapters based on input I’ve received. So if you do have feedback on these, it would be ideal to hear from you on it by late August or early September.

If you do provide input on any of the drafts and you would like to be acknowledged for that in the final book, please list your name at the bottom of any of the chapters you provide input on so that I can make sure you get added to the acknowledgements list.

If it’s useful, you are welcome to cite these draft chapters, but when doing so cite them as something like Trevor Owens.(forthcoming). After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Open Review of the First Half of “After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory”

I’m excited to be able to share the first four chapters of my next book, After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory with you for input and comments. For more background on the project, you can read the full book proposal for it here.

Like I did with my pervious book, I am posting draft chapters for input from the broader community of memory workers. Each chapter is up in a google doc for anyone to suggest edits on or offer inline comments. Below are links to each chapter.

These are very much in progress drafts. So, I’m interested in any and all feedback and input. I’m interested in any feedback that can help strengthen the project, but I’m also interested in hearing about any parts of it that particularly resonate with readers. To that end, if there are parts that resonate with you feel free to screenshot them and share them on social media and or to add comments attesting to things that you think work well in the chapters. If you do share out about this on twitter please tag me @tjowens. Along with that, I’m particularly interested in any suggestions for work that I should be citing from women, people of color, and early career professionals. I’m also interested for any more scholarship written by memory workers (archivists, librarians, curators, etc.) that I should focus more attention on.

For the next 3-4 months, I’m planning to shift to work on the last four chapters, the ones that focus on Maintenance, Care, and Repair. At that point I will post those chapters and shift to work through revising and improving these first four chapters based on input I’ve received.

If you do provide input on any of the drafts and you would like to be acknowledged for that in the final book, please list your name at the bottom of any of the chapters you provide input on so that I can make sure you get added to the acknowledgements list.

If it’s useful, you are welcome to cite these draft chapters, but when doing so cite them as something like Trevor Owens.(forthcoming). After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory. University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Reflecting on 2021: Staying in and looking to the future

As a year comes to a close I try to make some time to reflect and synthesize some of what I’ve been up to across my work here on my blog. I’ve done this almost every year for the last decade. You can see my reflections at the end of 202020192018,  2017201520142013, and 2012. I’m a big fan of metacognition, so I get a lot out of taking time to round up, reflect, and try and synthesize things at least once a year.

Continuing to stay inside

Last year I was reflecting on how strange and abrupt the shift to “going inside” was at the start of the Pandemic. When we were able to get the vaccine in the spring, it felt like things were really going to start to change. The realities of the pandemic ended up meaning that “going outside” came in strange fits and starts and with a lot of uncertainty.

We were able to make it to a few film festivals to support Marjee’s documentary and to be able to get back to the midwest to see family, but we certainly haven’t gotten back to anything that I would think of as normal. I was physically in the office one day this year. I’m increasingly thinking that there really isn’t a normal to go back to. Our dog Iggy joined our family, and he brings us a lot of joy. We lost our dog Zelda in June, and have been processing a lot of grief. I read a lot of books this year, more than I read last year which was more than I read the year before. Whatever is coming next, I believe we are going to bring what we found going inside along with us. I think we are also going to keep reading a lot more too.

Getting out of the startup mindset

When I came back to work at the Library of Congress in 2017, I was focused on starting up a whole new unit. That was a lot of fun. As time has gone on, it’s been critical to make a mindset shift away from that kind of start up phase. I’m really proud of how my colleagues have been working to further make our work maintainable and sustainable. Earlier this year, I wrote a bit about developing our community of practice.

When the team was forming, we had a lot of ambitious goals to support the organizations first digital collecting plan. This year, I had the honor of being able to help steer the successor to that plan, the Digital Collections Strategy. I’m really proud of the work that the team on this project did together. The new strategy builds on a lot of the successes from the first plan. With that noted, the scope of this strategy is a lot broader than the previous plan. The new strategy is focused on how digital collections work becomes more integrated across the whole organization. With that strategy in place, I’m putting a lot more time and effort into trying to help line up the things that need to happen over the course of the five year period for the plan.

Futures of cultural memory work

I am really proud to join the distinguished list of scholars who have won the Kilgour Research Award from the American Library Association. I’ve won a fair number of awards in the past, but this is the first one that I’ve received that “recognizes a body of work probably spanning years, if not the majority of a career.” It is deeply validating to get that kind of recognition, not just for a specific project but for the broader body of work I have done in my career so far. With that in mind, the scope and focus of my research and writing has also started to broaden out a bit too.

Toward the start of the year I presented Caring for Digital Collections in the Anthropocene as the Dr. Elizabeth W. Stone Lecture. That talk builds off the conclusion of my digital preservation book, exploring broader issues for the future of cultural memory institutions. I had the chance to reflect on my work and career a bit in an interview for Contingent Magazine. I also shared out a bit about what tools I use for my work on Use This.

I had a few new articles and essays come out that I think illustrate more of where I think my scholarship is going in the future. I published the essay A Good Jobs Strategy for Libraries in the journal Library Leadership and Management. I also published Collaboration, Empathy, & Change: Library Leadership in 2020, an open access book of my student’s essays on organizational theory and leadership in libraries. In both cases, this work focuses on how to help make memory institutions better and help support memory workers to both do good work and live full lives beyond their work.

As part of this broader shift in my work, I also got a contract with the University of Michigan Press to develop my next book, After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory. I’ve got about half of it drafted, which I plan to post here for input and comments early in the new year, and my goal is to have the whole book finished at some point in the fall of next year.

A Good Jobs Strategy for Libraries

I’m thrilled to share that the new issue of Library Leadership & Management includes a new article from me, titled A Good Jobs Strategy for Libraries.

Huge thanks to Thomas Padilla and Ruth Tillman who provided some really thoughtful comments on a draft of it.

Sharing the abstract for it below.

Abstract: In the 2014 book “The Good Jobs Strategy” management and organizational theory scholar Zeynep Ton identifies a set of key issues in job design, operational models, and staffing that enable organizations to both create good jobs and, as a result, deliver better products and services. Written primarily about retail, the key concepts in the framework relating to building teams, defining services, and supporting and empowering staff are also relevant to library organizations. Ton’s framework focuses on four principles; offer less, standardize and empower, cross-train, and operate with slack, each of which are relevant to varying degrees to library and archives organization contexts. This essay brings together points from the framework and connects them to issues in library management and organizational theory literature to explore the extent to which issues in the framework connect with issues facing libraries. The paper ends with recommendations for how libraries can similarly benefit from implementing a good jobs strategy that both supports library workers and enables better functions for our organizations.

After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory (My Next Book)

I’m excited to share that last weekend I signed the contract for my next book with University of Michigan Press. Over the course of the next year I will be developing After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory. In this post I share an overview plan for the book and I’ll be sharing drafts of it as I go. I’m looking forward to any comments or recommendations you might have about how I’m approaching this.

As I finished my last book, I’ve been thinking a lot more about the broader set of issues facing cultural memory institutions. The last chapter of The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation shifts into thinking about the future and the wide range of challenges that the Anthropocene presents to preservation and this book will largely work as a further zooming out on some of those issues. To that end, this book also builds from some of what I was exploring in the Stone Lecture I gave earlier this year. Along with that, I’ve been thinking a lot about the challenges that the grad students in my digital history and libraries and archives classes face as they work to break into the field. So the book is also an attempt to think through and synthesize a lot of issues that have surfaced in my teaching.

I am happy to share that the press is onboard with me sharing drafts of what I write here on my blog for feedback and review as I develop the manuscript. So I’m currently thinking that I will likely have a draft of the first half of the book together to share with you all at some point in the spring and then a draft of the second half of the book to share in the summer. I have already gotten a lot of helpful and thoughtful feedback from my editor, Sara Jo Cohen, and the reviewers and others at the press on the proposal and first two chapters I submitted with the proposal. I’m planning to use the blog as a place to expand that circle to others who are interested in following along on the project and offering any feedback.

In the interest of continuing to invite discussion and input about what I’m starting to put together, I’m also sharing the text of the book proposal here too. Based on feedback I’ve received, I already know a few things that are going to be tweaked and changed as the full book comes together, but I figured it made sense to share the proposal text more or less as is for input while I’m thinking through things too.

Overview of the Book

The digital age is burning out our most precious resources. Among other things the future of the past is at stake. Ted Talk style rhetoric about tech innovation and unending growth are partly responsible for the era of social, economic, cultural, and ecological calamities we are now facing. Our institutions of cultural memory, libraries, archives, museums, humanities departments and research institutes, have been disrupted, and largely not for the better.

As the tech sector and social media took center stage in cultures of management and management consulting in the 90s and 00s their ideology became a driving force in civic, social, and cultural institutions. University deans talk of disruptive innovation. Library directors track key performance indicators on data analytics dashboards. Historians stress the importance of scholars developing their personal brands on Twitter. Along with access to millions of digitized books and an abundance of forms of digital scholarship we find ourselves in memory institutions with increasingly precarious labor, mounting financial challenges that threaten their survival, and among the public, a loss of trust in expert analysis of the historical record. All the while, we continue to be told to be vigilant for the ways that digital technology will still yet disrupt our organizations futures.

I am describing things that have already happened, which prompts a question: What comes after disruption? Tech ideology demands perpetual anxiety about the coming disruption. My question to cultural heritage institution leaders and workers is instead, what should we do now, after disruption? How do we make sense of both the good and the bad that has come from our tech sector disrupted memory institutions? We are no longer planning for a digital future but living in a digital present. In that context, how do we plan for and develop a more just, sustainable, and healthy future for cultural memory? Over the next century, as sea levels and temperatures rise, we will see a widespread breakdown of norms and assumptions that have driven society over the previous century. At the same time, we have seen income inequality and increased precarity for workers in nearly all fields. Given that, what is the future of cultural memory in the face of a breakdown in our shared assumptions about both memory and the future? These are exactly the questions which After Disruption: A Future for Cultural Memory sets out to answer. 

Facile, naïve, and problematic, start-up ideology came bundled with digital technologies. It’s essential to name and trace those ideas and their effects. The first half of the book draws on critical scholarship on the history of technology and business to document and expose the sources of these ideologies and their pernicious results.  Specifically, an obsession with disruptive innovation, an insistence on the importance of “the hustle” and personal brands, and faith in “money-ball” style analytics and data have done extensive harm. I’ve slowly come to see how these, often at first compelling sounding ideas, play out and the havoc they bring to those of us working for the future of memory institutions.

It’s not enough to identify problematic ideologies. We need powerful and compelling counter frameworks and values to replace them. Drawing on work in science and technology studies, intersectional feminist theory, and educational philosophy, the second half of the book offers maintenance, care, and repair as three intertwined notions to moor the future of memory work and memory institutions. We need to invest in maintenance of our memory infrastructure. We need to create physical, digital, and social infrastructure that supports networks of care for memory workers, collections, communities, and the environment. We need to commit to repair and remodel our institutions to cut out patriarchy, settler colonialism, white supremacy, and manifest destiny and replace them with allyship, centering the voices and needs of the vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed. The book concludes with discussion of the realities of working to enact and live these values as a memory worker, a manager in a cultural heritage institution, and an educator of historians, librarians, and archivists.

The book will appeal broadly to those interested in the future of humanities and memory institutions and their relationships to technology. It relates directly to and builds on a wide range of recent scholarship. As a critique and practical call to action it pairs well with and would appeal to a similarly broad audience as Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. It builds on and draws from recent work on the centrality of maintenance, like Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russel’s The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most. It similarly builds on and draws from work the on problems with metrics in organizations, like Jerry Z. Muller’s The Tyranny of Metrics. As a critique of/resistance to tech sector thinking it draws from and relates to books like Jenny Odell’s, How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, and Adrian Daub’s What Tech Calls Thinking. It connects with current discussions about the importance of care in society and organizations, like the Care Collective’s Care Manifesto: The Politics of Interdependence.

While anchored in relevant scholarship and context, the book is also intended to be accessible and engaging to a broad audience of scholars, administrators, librarians, archivists, and museum professionals. It will also be a valuable resource as a textbook for graduate humanities seminars and courses in library and information science programs on organizational planning and management.

Chapter One: A Future for Cultural Memory

The future of our past is dependent on the future of cultural memory institutions and their workers. The challenge of the Anthropocene has brought into question core assumptions of our imagined future. Simultaneously, digital storage technologies have changed how we conceptualize memory itself. As a starting point for the book, this chapter is focused on clarifying what is at stake for both notions of the future and memory in the wake of the disruption that the tech sector has brought about in the last half century. 

In philosopher Franco Berardi’s terms, we find ourselves living and working “after the future.” In hindsight, somewhere around the great recession of 2008, faith in technology’s potential for progress dimmed. While Google still tells us it exists to organize the world’s knowledge, there is increasing skepticism about the kinds of algorithmic biases they promote. At the same time, faith in the creative freedom provided by knowledge work careers lost out to the growth of precarity in the “gig economy.” Memory institutions are increasingly offering temporary jobs to individuals increasingly carrying more and more student debt.

All the while the effects of anthropogenic climate change are making themselves known. In Roy Scranton’s terms, it is time for societies to begin considering how to die in the Anthropocene. Humanity is likely to survive beyond the 21st and 22nd centuries, but it will come out the other side of the centuries with its civilizations and institutions transformed. What should the purpose of memory work and memory institutions be in civilizations facing extinction? As archivist Sam Win argues, it is now important to think about palliative practice for cultural and social memory. In short, our assumptions about perpetual growth and progress in imagining the future need to change.

Alongside changing ideas about the future, the development of digital media has changed how we conceptualize memory itself. As media scholar Wendy Chun argues, memory has been hardened into storage. We are awash in documentation and recordings of the world and life and faced with ever larger quantities of information and data to consider collecting. As a result of computing, memory is now a tangible object, data encoded in a medium. We need to second guess the technical assumptions about memory as storage, or memory as data. It is critical to return to ideas of social and cultural memory as a lived part of identity, belonging, and community. When we take a more expansive notion of “living memory” we also find ways to better imagine a future for our shared cultural memory.

With notions of both the future and memory unpacked and articulated, the chapter ends with a roadmap for the book. What follows is an excavation of the recent past to document the emergence of three bankrupt ideologies that created the disrupted present: disruptive innovation, data analytics, and personal brands. After picking apart the pernicious nature of these sets of ideas the book transitions to elaborate on the way that maintenance, care and repair can become a new foundation to enact a more sustainable, equitable, and just future for cultural memory.

Chapter Two: What Disruption Wants

Fail faster. Creative destruction. Disruptive innovation. Hackathons. Asking, in almost any meeting, “but will it scale?” Over the last three decades the language of Silicon Valley start-ups and venture capitalists has found a home in the strategic plans and mission and vision statements of higher education and cultural memory institutions. This vocabulary, which historians of technology Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell have named “innovation-speak,” is now a core part of management cultures across the U.S. and beyond. This chapter is an exploration of the history of these ideas and the mixed results of their spread into institutions of cultural memory.

In retrospect, the last broad-based positive vision of a future for our world, and our memory along with it, came at the end of the 20th century. Philosopher Franco Berardi calls it “the Wired imagination.” Wired magazine popularized and sold a us a vision of a world where we would become netizens and independent creative professionals continually revolutionizing and democratizing how people and cultures tell their stories and connect with each other through the medium of the open web.  In this context notions that “information wants to be free” and the open-source software movement emerged. Those movements wove their ways into the academy in the emergence of digital history, digital preservation, digital scholarship, and the digital humanities. I experienced them firsthand working as the first and only “technology evangelist” hired on at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. 

While innovation-speak is wrapped in the rhetoric of revolution and freedom, those are not the source of its ideological success. The subtitle to Chirstianson’s 1997 book, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, is telling in this regard. The heart of innovation-speak is not working toward a better future, it is about the fear of being left behind. Of critical importance, chasing after novelty and the new has resulted in the creation a tiered society of work and workers, the maintainers and the innovators. The former are relegated to try and hold things together. The latter are provisioned resources to experiment, play and envision a future that is increasingly disassociated with the realities of the work and issues at hand.

The revolutionary rhetoric of innovation-speak is anything but. In practice, innovation-speak is a face for colonialism, white supremacy, and toxic masculinity. The gig economy isn’t a form of liberation. It’s sold in the language of freedom but it’s really the opposite. One of the most pernicious problems of innovation-speak is it lulls one into believing they are a force for change and good. Facebook can assert its mission is to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” But it is increasingly clear that big tech is not the noble force it purports to be. Instead, big tech is anchored in surveillance and control.

It’s long past time to leave behind novelty seeking and innovation-speak. Leaders in institutions of memory need to review and second guess the extent to which we have bought into an increasingly bankrupt vision for the future. We need to stop outsourcing envisioning the future to management consultants and the tech sector and instead return to the values and core missions of cultural heritage institutions.

Chapter Three: Data Analytics Myopia

In 2006, data scientist Clive Humby declared “Data is the new oil.” This bit of hype reoccurs every so often in headlines in Wired and The Economist. It offers a point of entry to understand the consultant classes ideology of data analytics. Data is out there waiting to be mined, extracted, processed and exploited. It is to be consumed to fuel perpetual growth. This chapter focuses on the way notions of data driven decision making, Key Performance Indicators, and Objectives and Key Results have resulted in reductionist and myopic perspectives for planning and envisioning the future of memory institutions. 

All sorts of organizations now have Chief Data Officers, often people who know data analysis techniques but aren’t themselves experts in the issues at hand for the organization’s missions. Of course, making decisions informed by evidence is a good thing, but when the quest for data and the desire to track it becomes central to all areas of work and planning it warps perspectives on what matters, and literally what counts. Historian Jerry Z. Muller describes the problems that emerge in this context as the tyranny of metrics, a situation where only things that can be easily counted and tracked are zeroed in on as targets and goals for growth.

Cultural memory institutions and workers now increasingly operate under this tyranny of metrics. Leaders in library organizations have sought “money ball” approaches to statistical analysis of their collections and collections use patterns. Federal agencies supporting advancement scholarship have been pushed to track reductive performance measures like citation counts. In each of these cases, chasing data creates a dichotomy between the analyst and the analyzed. The expert at their craft (librarians, archivists, historians, etc.) who can appreciate the full range of issues and challenges in each context are to be distrusted. On the ground expert judgement is dismissed as subjective instead of being understood as nuanced, contextualized and embedded.

As leaders from a wide range of institutions embrace books like Measure What Matters: OKRs – The Simple Idea that Drives 10x growth they celebrate the ascendance of individual key trackable metrics for growth. Of note, a central case study in this book is illustrative of the harm this perspective can bring. In 2011, YouTube decided to focus solely on aggregate watch time of videos as its metric. As one might suspect, when all you care about is getting people to watch a billion hours a day you don’t end up caring about what they watch. YouTube ended up meeting that target in large part because the best way to rack up those hours is by promulgating and building a broad audience for fringe conspiracy theories.

We are now two decades out from the critically acclaimed release of the television show The Wire, but it’s depiction of teachers, police officers, journalists, and civic leaders work to juke the stats and put spin on what does and doesn’t get counted could very well describe the functions and operations of our civic and cultural institutions today. We need to be thinking about how to undermine the false notions of objectivity in data and sort through how to turn back responsibilities to improving our world to the experts on the ground working in their fields.

Chapter Four: Solipsism and Personal Brands

In 2010, historians Dan Cohen and Tom Scheinfeldt, invited scholars around the world to contribute to the open access book Hacking the Academy. One of the prompts in their call for participation was “Can Twitter replace a scholarly society?” At the time, at least for me, it felt like the answer might be yes. I had established a social media presence and found community and connection with a wide range of historians, digital humanities scholars, librarians, archivists and museum professionals. That network was far more important to me professionally than what I had found in the American Historical Association, the American Library Association, or the Society of American Archivists.

These sentiments about Twitter have not aged well. While Twitter provided a way to get your name out there and make connections it functions as part of a draining always on attention economy. The laissez-faire heart of technolibertarinaism that animates social media platforms also makes them places where women and people of color face near constant harassment. This chapter explores the effects of ideas about social media, personal brands and the entrepreneurial self on memory workers careers and the institutions that employ them.

The insistence that we cultivate our individual personal brands directly connects to a now multi-generational divestment in institutions and a push to treat every person as their own entrepreneurial self. As sociologist Annette Lareau noted in research in the early 1990s, middle class parents began shifting their focus to one of “concerted cultivation” of their children. Where children had once engaged in free play, nearly every activity from playing on the soccer team to going to violin lessons became part of building out one’s resume for college and their eventual future career. The cult of the hustle emerged and places more and more responsibility on individuals to invent and pitch themselves to stitch together careers through gig and freelance work. As social media emerged as a place to build a personal brand it also presented another way to raise the stakes on what it means to be a good worker.

Both Millennials and now Gen Z, have grown up in a culture that values work not only as a source of income but also as validation of self to be performed for friends and family on social media. A good job isn’t enough. As Anne Hellen Peterson argues, it’s now essential to have “a cool job.” Work in cultural memory; as librarians, archivists, curators, and historians, is “cool” enough that young people are willing to endure increasingly extreme hardships, racking up loans for graduate degrees, moving across the country for unpaid or low-pay contract positions, all for the chance at landing one of these “cool jobs.” Higher education and cultural memory institutions have engaged in a race to the bottom, with more and more rungs on ladders of low pay and unpaid work that make it increasingly likely that only those who come from money have a chance to take on roles in memory institutions. 

Cultural heritage institutions need to push back against the solipsism of the hustle and resist the accelerating trend to pay less and offer less security to those seekers of “cool jobs.” The result of all of this is an increasingly burned-out workforce which is less and less able to take care of themselves and less and less equipped or supported to be stewards of cultural memory.

Chapter Five: Centering Maintenance

In 1969, in the Maintenance Art Manifesto, artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles identified a dichotomy between a death and life instinct in society. The death instinct focused on “separation, individuality, Avant-Gard par excellence; to follow one’s own path-do your own thing.” In contrast, the life instinct involved “unification, the eternal return; the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species; survival systems and operations, equilibrium.” Ukeles vision of the death instinct could work as a synopsis of the last three chapters. I’ve become increasingly convinced that the themes around the life instinct, specifically with the focus on maintenance, are central to envisioning a better future for cultural memory. There is a robust body of research and scholarship on both the value of preventive maintenance and the value of investing in engineering more redundant and resilient infrastructure and systems. This chapter engages with this work and relates it to cultural memory.

Centering maintenance is critical to improving the function of our institutions in this era after disruption. Significantly, in legal scholar Jedediah Purdy’s terms, we also find ourselves living in a time “after nature.” In the Anthropocene, humanity has so deeply disrupted the cycles and ecosystems of the Earth that we need to not only be maintainers and sustainers of our social, economic, and cultural infrastructure but we also need to be committed to making the very ecosystems of the planet sustainable and maintainable in the face of human activity. 

We need to begin to center maintenance over innovation. Or alternatively, we need to reframe what it means to be innovative to envision more resilient systems, to focus on maintainability, in ways to support anti-growth. The ideological core of innovation-speak assumes never ending perpetual growth but within the context of a living entity unchecked growth is a cancer. It’s detrimental to the ability for survival.

We can shift our resources and our thinking away from novelty. We can shift our resources away from the analyst at a distance interpreting data out of context and instead work to empower and engage deeply in contexts of the work at hand. At the same time, we need to make sure that a focus on maintenance doesn’t become maintenance of the status quo.

Chapter Five: Starting from Care

We need to replace the individualism of innovation with the interdependence of care. In good news, in parallel with the development of innovation rhetoric, feminist scholarship has developed and advanced an ethics and politics better attuned to the world we find ourselves in. The politics and ethics of care. In philosopher Nel Noddings terms, to work from an ethic of care is to “always act so as to establish, maintain, or enhance caring relations” and “to meet the other as one-caring.” This involves striving to advance the ends of others on their terms. This chapter focuses on describing the ethics and politics of care and articulating what it would mean for cultural memory institutions start from care as the basis of their work.  

At its heart, a politics of care transposes the interdependence that exist in our individual relationships with each other as a basis for imagining social, political, and institutional structures and systems. As the Care Manifesto contends, “Only by multiplying our circles of care – in the first instance, by expanding our notion of kinship – will we achieve the psychic infrastructures necessary to build a caring society that has universal care as its ideal.” Much of the language of innovation exapts Darwinian survival of the fittest metaphors which have increasingly been dismissed as ways to understand biological environments. Ecosystems and evolution are now increasingly understood not in terms of struggle and dominance but in terms of symbiosis, and sympoiesis (making with). Processes of both intra and inter species collaboration and cooperation offer models to draw from for enacting this politics of care.

On some level we all understand we are dependent on each other. We are born incapable of taking care of ourselves. We grow old and are dependent on care. But in the middle, at some points, we imagine ourselves independent. Much of our psychological theory and our economic theory is based on the idea that individual people function as rational independent units. It’s worth underscoring that both psychological and economic theory is shifting to become more ecological in nature as well.

Notions of interdependence and care come with connections to longstanding notions of how organizations and businesses should function.  Robert Greenleaf’s vision for servant leadership was anchored in the idea that institutions and companies exist as much for their patrons and customers as they do to provide meaningful and fulfilling work for their employees.

In this context, care is valuable in helping us reinvent the very language of adaption and change. Discussions of maintenance still focus attention on masculine notions of construction, building, engineering and the built environment. In contrast, notions like care provide metaphors like “gardening” which offer ways to think about co-creation and ecological systems perspectives. A gardener is making-with, is engaging in activities of sympoiesis. Indeed, as we increasingly move into a world that exists “after nature,” it’s essential that we transition away from metaphors that position “makers” in contrast to “materials.” When we start from care we will set fundamentally different kinds of goals for fundamentally different kinds of results.

Chapter Seven: Remodeling, Renovation & Repair

In “Rethinking Repair,” information science scholar Stephen Jackson asks us to “take erosion, breakdown, and decay, rather than novelty, growth, and progress, as our starting points in thinking through the nature, use, and effects of information technology and new media.” In contrast to notions of disruptive and destructive innovation, this line of thinking leads us to see the capacity of human civilization to absorb and respond to dramatic changes as the sites of genuine innovation. Through discussion of the ship-breaking industry in Bangladesh, Jackson demonstrates how a source of global waste and detritus of abandoned ships becomes a resource that is broken down to its parts and circulated back into the global economy. Along with maintenance and care, repair and related notions of renovation and remodeling provide valuable metaphors for thinking about how to sustain people and institutions throughout change.

As noted earlier, an issue with maintenance as a concept is that it can come with a reactionary connotation. It’s critical to develop an approach to maintenance that is not synonymous with “maintaining the status quo.” Pairing maintenance with care and repair is essential to support the major repair and remodeling necessary in our social, civic, and economic institutions. Toxic masculinity, white supremacy and settler colonialism are founding extractive central problems for memory work and memory institutions. As a result, there is rampant racism, ableism, ageism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, queer-phobia and other forms of oppression that are endemic to memory work and institutions of cultural memory.

Make America Great Again masquerades as a narrative of restoration and repair. Of course, it’s not a return to union jobs and lower income inequality. The rise of Trump and the nostalgic reactionary agenda of MAGA is illustrative of real harm that can come from manipulations of cultural memory. Notions of “heritage” are central to fascism and the need to be directly confronted as the cancer that they are. The oppressive structural problems at the heart of memory institutions require remodeling. We need to fix and repair them. There is dismantling that needs to happen but it’s not fundamentally a destructive process. We need to treat and remove the cancers in our professions, institutions, and society and only then will we all be able to live in a healthier way. We don’t need “creative destruction.”

We don’t need “disruptive innovation.” The rhetoric of revolution in innovation-speak is, again, false. We need deliberate focused efforts to remodel and repair our institutions. We can make our institutions better versions of themselves that live up to the lofty values like equity and justice that were carved above many of their stone entry ways centuries ago. As artist Jenny Odell’s argues, we can engage in acts of manifest dismantling. As Odell notes, the intentional dismantling of the San Clemente Dam in California involved working to repair and re-cultivate ecosystems the dam had disrupted. The dam was implemented to control and dominate nature, and the answer wasn’t to blow it up, but to intentionally dismantle it and engage in work to repair the damage it had done. We can similarly engage in manifest dismantling of the structures, systems, and processes that work against equity, justice, and inclusion in institutions of cultural memory.

Chapter Eight: Institutions of Memory for the Anthropocene

What should institutions of memory become in the Anthropocene? This last chapter works to provide a synthesis of the previous chapters and offer both practical and more far-reaching recommendations for how memory work and memory institutions would change if we centered maintenance, care, and repair.

Maintenance is anti-hype. It is anti-unfettered growth. Maintenance about keeping things together. It’s about sustainability. If we got serious about focusing on maintenance and maintainability, we would be prioritizing a focus on a more sustainable pace of work, more modest goals for our work, and thinking more about the long-term costs and knock-on effects of new efforts and initiatives. 

Care is anti-individualist. It is about interdependence. Care is about tending, pruning, and gardening instead of building, demolition, and construction. If we center care in the work of memory institutions, we will be thinking about the networks of interdependence that emerge from memory institutions. Networks from the workers and labor of collecting and preserving, through the communities whose memories are recorded, documented and interpreted form collections. We would focus on cyclicality, of engagement and exploration and not on extraction and isolation. We would respect and honor memory as a living part of communities, identity and belonging.

Repair is anti-breaking. It’s about fixing. It’s about tweaking. It’s about finding where we are broken and mending not only to keep things working but to also try and make them better fit our needs and uses. We can identify what needs to be remodeled so that the lofty high-minded missions and visions of cultural heritage institutions better align with the lived experience of their function and operations. 

If we are serious about centering maintenance, care, and repair in memory institutions we need to replace the fear impulse that comes from narratives about navigating disruption and keeping up with the times and intentionally shift to longer term planning to develop robust and sustainable, in every sense of the words, infrastructures and engagement with our communities. We can strive to make sure that our institutions provide good jobs and to advocate for resources to support those good jobs. We can understand good jobs as positions that come with clear boundaries between work and the rest of life. As jobs that provide opportunities for people close to the work and the problems at hand both the ability to develop and improve their craft and the resources necessary to do their work in ways that don’t burn them out. We can prioritize the development and improvement of resilient and generous systems in our organizations that can support people enacting care. In this context, we can focus our efforts on how to support more holistic notions of outcomes that take in mind the varied and different issues that the communities we are entrusted to support memory for are directly engaged in and participants of.

A key tool for doing this work can be working to support broader systems thinking approaches to the problems we face. We can work to avoid reductionist models focused on single key metrics and instead focus deliberate time and attention in understanding the complexity that emerges from dynamic systems that span between people, culture, nature and technology. In all of this, if we center care in our work and our organizations, we will center allyship and the need to seek out reparative and restorative justice. At its heart chasing after innovation has been a process of fear. Fear of being left behind. In the wake of the disruption of innovation, in this time after disruption, we can accept our vulnerability as a starting point and stop thinking about how to do more with less and think more about what we should do with the limited time, space, resources, and connections we have to each other and our communities.

Are NFTs Nonsense for Digital Cultural Heritage Collections?

The idea of a Rare and Antiquarian eBook Shop made for a solid McSweeney’s article in 2012. “Why, hello there!—I was just appraising some rare PDFs in the back room when I heard you come in.” Rare PDFs sound a bit funny. However, the idea of rare “born digital” materials has become an important and serious thing for cultural heritage orgs. Authors and playwrights drafts are now files on computers and not handwritten or typewritten documents, so if you’re in the business of working with records of the creative process you have to get into digital files. Similarly, if you care about books at this point, for the most part, a print book you hold in your hand is effectively a print surrogate of an original or source digital file. Doug Reside’s 2014 article File Not Found: Rarity in an Age of Digital Plenty, published in the RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage, is a great introduction to many of the issues at hand for thinking about the idea of rare PDFs.

Reside makes a powerful case for how and why collecting institutions that work with rare book and manuscript materials need to start taking acquiring and preserving digital content seriously. Rarity doesn’t totally make sense in the digital context in the way it does with an analog context, but there is a continuity at play. In an analog context, you can have one of a kind objects or artifacts. But the very premiss of working with a digital object involves making copies of it. So if you have a rare PDF and you email it to someone their copy is identical. Even just loading the PDF on your computer involves creating copies of it within your local environment. As your computer optimizes storage space it overwrites the original location on a disk that your file was located on and makes a copy. It’s functionally the case that something is authentically itself and equivalent to being original if contains the same sequence of bits.

As NFTs come on the scene a range  of discussions have emerged about if NFTs could be a way to do something like rare ebooks. These pieces on NFTs for ebooks have come up in conversations with a range of colleagues. I work on supporting folks to collect, preserve, and ensure future access to digital content. I’ve also written award winning work about how to approach preserving digital content. It is from that context that I’ve been following things about the hype about NFTs.

My sense that NFTs look to be a non-solution to a non-problem, at least in the context of collecting digital objects. But there is enough interest in this that it seems like we need to work through it and I am also totally open to the idea that I might be wrong about this.

In what follows I attempt to do the following;

  • Provide some links to good essays on NFTs with some key pull quotes for background
  • Share my own summary of takeaways from those essays
  • Give an overview of varied and different ways one can own or collect analog and digital things as context for assessing NFTs
  • Offer a preliminary assessment of NFTs in relation to their utility for organizations that collect and preserve cultural records and works.

Some background on NFTs

I’m not going to write a general explainer about NFTs or write broadly about their problems. That work has already been done, so I’m sharing links to a few articles for background. I encourage everyone who hasn’t read these articles to go read them and then come back to this. That noted, I’ve gone ahead and pulled some block quotes out that I think are particularly relevant to understand what NFTS are and aren’t and what if anything they have to do with collecting digital stuff. 

The One Redeeming Quality of NFTs Might Not Even Exist, Kal Raustiala and Christopher Jon Sprigman, Anil Dash, Slate

NFTs are “nonfungible” in the sense that each is unique. It is this feature that people point to when they say that an NFT can be used as a token to identify an “authentic” digital artwork. Let’s turn back to Everydays and see if that argument holds up. The Christie’s description of the auction states that Beeple will deliver a copy of Everydays—a 500-megapixel image with a file size of about 300 megabytes—to the buyer. That feature makes this transaction resemble a typical art sale—buyer pays money; artist delivers “authentic” artwork. But unlike a painting or a sculpture or even a traditional photograph that has been created by the hand of the artist, there are countless perfect copies of Everydays floating around on the internet, copies that are indistinguishable from the one Beeple delivered to the buyer.” So, NFTs don’t help resolve the question of authenticity, and in fact, they might make things more complicated. How? Because anyone can make an NFT of any digital artwork. Making an NFT doesn’t involve copying, distributing, or displaying the artwork itself, and so copyright law is not implicated. And in fact, many people have made NFTs of others’ artwork, and each one is owned by a different person. Which means that not only are NFTs useless at distinguishing the authentic copy, they also can add a lot of spurious and potentially confusing information about ownership—at least if you take NFTs seriously as stating some sort of ownership claim to a particular piece of art.

People Are Stealing Art and Turning It Into NFTs, Ben Munster, Motherboard 

“NFTs are not JPEGs, or tweets, or anything like that; they are cryptographic signatures (an alphanumeric code) that buyers and sellers merely believe is somehow connected to the work in question. Where and how the actual work itself is stored or hosted online is incidental to this cryptographic proof.”

NFTs Weren’t Supposed to End Like This. Anil Dash,The Atlantic 

“when someone buys an NFT, they’re not buying the actual digital artwork; they’re buying a link to it. And worse, they’re buying a link that, in many cases, lives on the website of a new start-up that’s likely to fail within a few years. Decades from now, how will anyone verify whether the linked artwork is the original?

All common NFT platforms today share some of these weaknesses. They still depend on one company staying in business to verify your art. They still depend on the old-fashioned pre-blockchain internet, where an artwork would suddenly vanish if someone forgot to renew a domain name. “Right now NFTs are built on an absolute house of cards constructed by the people selling them,” the software engineer Jonty Wareing recently wrote on Twitter.

Parsing those stories and quotes you can pull out a set of points for considering if they might have anything to do with digital collecting.


  1. Do not directly involve owning copies of a work
  2. Do involve creating an entry in a ledger that says you own something related to a set of characters in a hash value
  3. Do not involve a buyer getting any kind of unique copy of a thing. In most cases all sorts of folks out there can have actual copies of the thing you ostensibly bought
  4. Do not come with any kind of assurance that your purchase of the thing that you don’t have is actually a legit sale
  5. Do come with a serious environmental impact because of the really strange nature of blockchain being something that requires huge amounts of energy to run computer systems to “mine” it. 

So far, I will admit, I don’t really get the appeal of NFTs.

With that noted, a lot of things about how we have and own digital things are strange. So it’s good to think through a bit about the various ways you can own a thing, either digital or analog, and iron out if there is some root problem in owning digital things that NFTs, even notionally, could help solve. 

Some ways you can own a thing (digital or otherwise)

With the context and background from those points above, we can think through a few ways that a person can own a thing, digital or analog, and think through which if any of these ways to own a thing relates to what NFTs do. 

First: You come into possession of an instance of a thing

This is pretty much the most straightforward and traditional way to own a thing. You go to an auction house and buy an oil painting. You take it home and hang it on the wall. It is in your possession. You buy a print copy of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus at the Mall, you drive home and put it on your book shelf. You might even then read it. You see a for sale sign out front of a historic house. You make an offer. They accept it. You sign a bunch of documents and exchange a bunch of money. Then you take possession of the home.

This can work exactly the same way for buying a digital object. Right now, you can go to Cory Doctorow’s website and buy a copy of his book Little Brother. You can also go to Jonathan Coulton’s website and buy a copy of the song I’m Your Moon. In either case, you pay some money and then you get to download a copy of the thing you bought. In the case of Doctorow’s book it’s an EPUB or a PDF. In the case of Coulton’s song, it’s an MP3. You can then make as many copies of that file as you like. You can put copies of it on different devices etc. They let you get DRM free copies, but you can also go to iTunes and buy a different book or song and Apple uses some software that controls things like how many devices you can have that file on at any point in time. Even in those DRM cases, you still bought a thing. You download the file with the content and you have a license that allows you do various things with it.

Strangely, when you buy an NFT none of these things are true. The NFT is in effect someone writing down on some list that you own something. It is unrelated to having a copy of the thing and strangely it’s also basically unrelated to owning any kind of license for anything. If you want to buy a genuinely scarce digital thing, you can try to get the single copy of the Wu-Tang Clan’s album Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. If you want to make a scarce digital thing, you could follow their lead and make a single copy of some digital object put it on a CD or a thumb drive, and sell it at auction. In any event, you don’t need an NFT.

Second: You enter into a contract that says you own something or aspect of a thing or an idea

When it comes to art and creative work there are a lot of things that are somewhat intangible and difficult to own. In good news there are already well trodden and trusted creative ways to solve that problem. In general they involve writing contracts. For example, when Dan Flavin sold his light based artworks to collectors he didn’t sell them a bunch of bulbs. He sold them a signed certificate of authenticity and diagrams for how to reconstruct the thing from off the shelf parts (there is a great discussion of this on pages 30-33 in Re-collection: New Media, Art and Society). 

Significantly, you don’t need NFTs or blockchain to write contracts. If there was something that blockchain would be useful for it would ostensibly be things like contracts, but still, it’s not really a thing anyone is seriously doing. In large part because we can do contracts just fine without distributed ledgers.

It’s worth noting that folks into digital cryptography have been trying to make digital signatures happen for a really long time. For all that effort they seem to be largely useless. One of my biggest take away from Jean-François Blanchette’s excellent book Burdens of Proof Cryptographic Culture and Evidence Law in the Age of Electronic Documents is that a huge amount of work went into attempts to make public key encryption be the basis of ubiquitous digital signatures but that in practice they don’t really do that much for us.

How many of us are emailing pictures of our signatures to each other pasted into word docs or stuck on PDFs? It’s clear that in practice emails work fine as records of approvals or authorizations. At the same time we frequently use various docusign style applications where there are click through agreements that are actually the underlying basis of executing a given contract or agreement and not anything fancy with digital signatures. We don’t need crypto for digital signatures because, as is the case with most signatures in the analog world, from context we know when we should have confidence that someone is agreeing to authorize something. As is the case in so many cases where crypto attempts to offer solutions, the situation of signatures is not really a technical problem it’s a social problem. We don’t need any kind of crypto to do contracts and agreements in a digital era. We certainly don’t need blockchain contracts, and in any event, NFTS clearly aren’t even related to contractual agreements documenting exchange of legitimate ownership of anything.  

Third: You can just assert you own something

In 2010 MOMA declared they were acquiring the @ symbol, and a few years later they similarly asserted they were acquiring the creative commons symbol. As far as I understand it, this is on some level a performative thing. They didn’t necessarily acquire anything, but in effect, by documenting the symbols and giving them pride of place and engaging in interpretation of them they are effectively doing the thing cultural heritage institutions do with artifacts even though the things in this case are intangible symbols.

What’s really fascinating about the acquisition of the @ symbol, is that, as Chan and Cope have noted, these kinds of examples of acquiring ideas and documentation of things are valuable frameworks to think about the future of collecting in cultural heritage institutions. In their case, these examples can change how a museum goes about collecting things like an iPhone app.

The take away in this case is that it’s possible for cultural heritage institutions to acquire funky immaterial things and for it to be both really inexpensive and genuinely useful in advancing their missions. This all has literally nothing to do with NFTs but in good news it’s far more interesting of a concept for cultural heritage orgs to explore.

Forth: You pay someone to write down on a list that they claim you own something

There are situations where what is being sold is an assertion that you are the owner of something. A good example of something like this is Star Registries. There are a bunch of different ones out there. They have been described as “low key scams.” The concept here is that someone who isn’t really authorized to sell naming rights to a star sets up shop and starts selling naming rights to stars. What you’re buying is the idea that they put your name on their list and according to them you got the naming rights to the star.

From what I understand, this is the closest analogy to an NFT. However, significantly, star registries also run just fine without using blockchain. Which makes star registries way more environmentally friendly than NFTs, which have been described as “an ecological nightmare pyramid scheme.” You don’t even need NFTs to run these kind of “low key scams.”

What would we say if a Planetarium started buying or selling Star Registries? 

At this point it feels like the right analogy here for NFTs is that they are effectively star registries that come with additional environmental problems. What would the cultural heritage community say if the Adler Planetarium started buying or selling entries on star registries? My guess is various professional communities would be outraged. So, if these things are effectively equivalent then it would seem we should all get outraged if any cultural heritage org entertains buying (or minting) NFTs. 

NFTs appear to be a non-solution to a non-problem for digital creative works

The examples I walked through demonstrate a range of ways someone can own and buy digital things. They all work fine without NFTs. So, I don’t even understand what imagined problem they are intended to solve. The only way I can understand NFTs as a phenomena is that 1) the hype in the cryptocurrency community is so strong 2) the level of understanding of the nature of digital content in the art community is so weak and 3) that the desire/vanity to assert that someone owns something is so strong for a lot of folks that people are lining up to play along with a really strange “low key scam.”

In any event, it doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with working to ensure enduring access to digital content. It seems, like much of cryptocurrency and blockchain more broadly, that this is all part of a strange techno-libertarian hype bubble around non-problems. In the case of currency at least, crypto folks are right that money is strangely all a big belief system. So when it comes to currency, I can accept on some level that distributed ledgers can solve similar problems to the made up problems that currencies solve. However, custody of objects isn’t the same kind of belief system situation as currency.

If there is something that I am really missing here? I’d love to hear it in a discussion in the comments. I do admit that the level of interest in this kind of thing is so large that I remain genuinely baffled about the whole thing and would be happy to engage with discussion about how I might be totally off base about it.