Signifying & Significance: Figuring out what matters and saving the digital things that testify to that mattering

Last week I was excited to participate in as a panelist in a small conference at the Bard Graduate Center called Digital/Pedagogy/Material/Archives. The goal of the event was to bring together scholars working at the intersection of these four terms to think about how best to grapple with the challenge of archiving new forms of digital scholarship coming out of the classroom.

I’ve posted my slides on slideshare (and embedded them below) but in the course of our discussion I thought it would be helpful to share some links and brief points to round out my perspective both for those who participated in the conference and anyone who comes across my slides on the web.

Part of the goal of the meeting was to provide provocations on these terms. So what follows, and what is in my slides is intended to be a bit provocative.

ARIS & Menokin Student Project: 

I decided it would be best to share a particular case study of a student project as an example to think through what exactly someone might want to save in a digital object. I shared a place based game that Laura Heiman & Caitlin Miller (students in my History and the Digital Age course) created. The course is a research methods course for doctoral students at American university and an elective for students in their Public History Master’s program. I picked these two blog posts to share for context on the project.

For background on my approach to teaching this course, and for why I have these two blog posts to point to, check out this post I wrote a while back.

In my talk I tried to push up against some of the default assumptions that we bring to talking about preserving digital objects and artifacts. I tried to articulate a perspective on preservation that is grounded in first identifying what material objects (digital or analog) would be able to testify, or be the place where evidence exists, of the information you think is interesting. For background and context on where some of these remarks come from here are some pieces I’ve written and drawn from.

  • Significance is in the eye of the stakeholder : What’s important about this piece is the notion that objects don’t have significant properties. Instead, there are different properties of objects that are significant to different potential users/audiances/stakeholders.

Objects have an infinite number of properties, those properties include traces of the past that people can interpret as evidence for claims. With that said, to take a preservation action is to decide to act to ensure access to properties that one finds particularly important or significant.

  • The is of the digital object and the is of the Artifact : This is mostly a riff on the materiality of digital objects. What is important in this context is that there are a lot of different material artifacts that have traces of the things that we care about. I mention Ian Bogost’s example of the 11 different things that the video game E.T. the Extraterrestrial is to underscore that even defining what that game is requires an extensive set of decisions about what someone might want to do with it. Now if you want to preserve that video game you need to think about which of those 11 objects you want to have evidence about.

So, if you want to preserve E.T. the Extraterrestrial, or anything for that matter, it’s critical to realize that drawing boundaries around what the object itself is requires you to make decisions about the significance of particular properties for particular potential uses.

  • Glitching Files for Understanding: With all this said, digital objects are material objects and as such they have very real properties. Once you have identified an artifact that you care about you need to attend to the facts or features of its existence. In this post, I try to break apart many of the assumptions of screen essentialism, the idea that what digital objects look like on the screen is their essence. In contrast, digital objects are in fact bits of encoded information.

If we understand and respect the formal and forensic materiality of these objects in the context of the properties of them that we want to preserve then we are well on our way to making this work.

In this case, if you want to know about the Albert Einstein Memorial, the physical object of the statue is not where you find the evidence you need. This is not a particularly interesting point, but what is interesting is that the archival record of the memorial’s creation in the National Academy of Sciences archives is far less interesting as a source of information about what the memorial means to people than the very ephemeral information about the memorial in reviews of it on Yelp and TripAdvisor and the pictures people share of it on Flickr. This is to say that there is a wake of artifacts that exist in a network of meaning around this particular memorial and that many of the most interesting artifacts to get at what the memorial means to people are not the thing itself (the memorial) or the records about the thing itself (the documents in the archives) but are instead things people are saying about it (posts on Yelp & TripAdvisor) or doing with it (using it as a prop to take photographs). So, depending on what you think matters about the object would push you to try and save different kinds of objects that can provide potential evidence on that subject.

  • Archives in Context and as Context:  During our discussion we slide around a good bit in what we meant by archiving, archives, and preservation. So its worth linking out to Kate’s great piece on this subject as it provides good grist for pinning down what we mean at different moments about archives.

The main point here is that one needs to be careful in clarifying what one means with the word archive. Kate focuses on a few points, but one of the trickiest that comes up is the use of “archiving” as a verb or saying something “has been archived.” Archives are places, and similarly preservation is something that institutions do not something that is accomplished. Nothing is preserved, there are only things that are being preserved.  Nothing is archived, there are only things that are in archives.

If there is one thing we can count on it’s entropy. All material objects in the world are wearing down and degrading. Everything in the world eventually succumbs to it’s own inherent vices. At the end of the day the question is what traces of the world recorded on artifacts we want to commit ourselves to ensuring long term access to.