I started drafting chapters for this book in late 2016 when Heather, then the head of the Archives here and now director of the department, approached me about coauthoring the title. I had never written in chapter form before, nor for more a general audience. Approaching my usual stomping ground of born-digital collection material from this vantage was really intriguing, so I jumped at the chance.
To back up a little, our subject here is collecting, receiving, processing, describing and otherwise taking care of born-digital content for cultural heritage institutions. With that scope, we have oriented this book to students and instructors, as well as current practitioners who are aiming to begin or improve their existing born-digital strategy. We’ve included lots of real world examples to demonstrate points, and the whole of the book is designed to cover all aspects of managing born-digital content. We really discuss everything from collecting policy and forensic acquisition to grabbing social media content and designing workflows. In other words, I’m hoping this provides a fantastic overview of the current field of practice.
Our title is part of Facet Publishing’s No-nonsense series, which provides an ongoing run of books on topics in information science. Facet in general is a great publisher in this space (if you haven’t checked out Adrian Brown’s Archiving Websites, I recommend it), and I’m happy to be a part of it. I thank them for their interest in the book and their immense help in getting it published!
Last year I attended the Digital Heritage 2015 conference and presented a paper on digital forensics in the archive. The paper centers on collecting file timestamps across floppy disks into a single timeline to increase intellectual control over the material and to explore the utility of such a timeline for a researcher using the collection.
As I state in the paper, temporal forensic data likely constitutes the majority of forensic information acquired in archival settings, and in most cases this information is gathered inherently through the generation of a disk image While we may expect further use of this data as disk images make their way to researchers as archival objects (and the community’s software, institutional policies and user expectations grow to support it), it is not too soon to explore how temporal forensic data can be used to support discovery and description, particularly in the case of collections with a significant number of digital media.
Many thanks to the organizers of Digital Heritage 2015 for the support and feedback; it was a wonderful and very wide-reaching conference.
I had the pleasure of meeting Mél Hogan while she was doing her postdoctoral work at CU Boulder. I think her research area is vital, though it’s difficult to summarize. But that won’t stop me, so here goes: investigating how one can “account for the ways in which the perceived immateriality and weightlessness of our data is in fact with immense humanistic, environmental, political, and ethical repercussions” (The Archive as Dumpster).
Data flows and water woes: The Utah Data Centeris a good entry point for this line of inquiry. The article explores the above quoted concerns (humanistic, environmental, political, and ethical) at the NSA’s Utah Data Center, near Bluffdale. It has suffered outages and other operational setbacks since construction. These initial failures are themselves illuminating, but even assuming such disruptions are minimized in the future, the following excerpt clarifies a few of the material constraints of the effort:
Once restored, the expected yearly maintenance bill, including water, is to be $20 million (Berkes, 2013). According to The Salt Lake Tribune, Bluffdale struck a deal with the NSA, which remains in effect until 2021; the city sold water at rates below the state average in exchange for the promise of economic growth that the new waterlines paid for by the NSA would purportedly bring to the area (Carlisle, 2014; McMillan, 2014). The volume of water required to propel the surveillance machine also invariably points to the center’s infrastructural precarity. Not only is this kind of water consumption unsustainable, but the NSA’s dependence on it renders its facilities vulnerable at a juncture at which the digital, ephemeral, and cloud-like qualities are literally brought back down to earth. Because the Utah Data Center plans to draw on water provided by the Jordan Valley River Conservancy District, activists hope that a state law can be passed banning this partnership (Wolverton, 2014), thus disabling the center’s activities.
As hinted at in a previous post on Lanier, I often encounter a sort of breathlessness invoked when descriptions of cloud-based reserves of data and computational prowess are discussed. Reflecting on the material conditions of these operations, as well as their inevitable failures and inefficiencies (e.g. the apparently beleaguered Twitter archive at the Library of Congress, though I would be more interested in learning about the constraints and stratagems of private operations) is a wise counterbalance that can help refocus discussions on the humanistic repercussions of such operations. And to be sure, I would not exclude archives from that scrutiny.
Early in January I attended the first-ever BitCurator Users Forum in Chapel Hill. This was a fantastic day with a group of folks interested in the BitCurator project and digital forensics in an archive setting — definitely one of the most information-packed and directly applicable conferences or forums I’ve attended. I’m very much looking forward to next year’s.
Two files with different passages of 1s and 0s automatically have different checksums but may still offer the same experience; for example, two copies of a digitized film may differ by a few frames but look identical to the human eye. The point of digitizing a Stanley Kubrick film isn’t to create a new mathematical artifact with its own unchanging properties, but to capture for future generations the experience us old timers had of watching his cinematic genius in celluloid. As a custodian of culture, my job isn’t to ensure my DVD of A Clockwork Orange is faithful to some technician’s choices when digitizing the film; it’s to ensure it’s faithful to Kubrick’s choices as a filmmaker.
As in nearly all storage-based solutions, fixity does little to help capture context. We can run checksums on the Riverside “King Lear” till the cows come home, and it still won’t tell us that boys played women’s parts, or that Elizabethan actors spoke with rounded vowels that sound more like a contemporary American accent than the King’s English, or how each generation of performers has drawn on the previous for inspiration. Even on a manuscript level, a checksum will only validate one of many variations of a text that was in reality constantly mutating and evolving.
In my own preoccupation with disk imaging, generating checksums and storing them on servers, I forget that at best this is the very beginning of preservation; not an incontestable “ground truth” of the artifact.
Previously, I have argued that videogames represent in the gap between procedural representation and individual subjectivity. The disparity between the simulation and the player’s understanding of the source system it models creates a crisis in the player; I named this crisis simulation fever, a madness through which an interrogation of the rules that drive both systems begins. The vertigo of this fever — one gets simsick as he might get seasick — motivates criticism.
Procedural rhetoric also produces simulation fever. It motivates a player to address the logic of a situation in general, and the point at which it breaks and gives way to a new situation in particular.
I’m often asked – in the course of my job or by an acquaintance – to explain ‘digital preservation’ and what I mean by it. And as I’m sure others in this field know, a frequent first guess is scanning – you’re scanning stuff, right?
It’s a reasonable and valid guess – digitization can and is used as a preservation strategy – but it’s a reply that leaves me stumbling, “Yes, but…” as it’s the born-digital content that is most likely to be overlooked for a newcomer.
I’m often tongue tied though to explain why born-digital material is important at a personal level for an individual. To some it seems immediately frivolous – perhaps resulting from a notion that the digital enterprise is inherently ephemeral, or that the ‘information superhighway’ – a dated term but one still with a legacy – is just a media-carrying superstructure over the real stuff.
Not having someone immediately agree with your assumptions startles you into explanation mode. So I reach for a personal example of born-digital vitality. But the truth is that in my recent past I’ve done a pretty good job of preserving the digital materials that are important to me. Setting up a reasonably safe (and this is key: automated) backup routine and checking media health every once in a while goes a long way. So I have no woeful narrative to relate there about personal digital material becoming lost (yet).
So I searched back through my own personal history to think of what born-digital content I have lost to time. Not just any old content that happened to be lost, but something that means a lot to me but is simply no more.
Now I’ve visited a near-loss and partial recovery with a high school art web site, so I recall here a complete content loss. Nothing remains but the recollection. This loss still smarts today – the code for my QBasic games. Hear my tale of woe, as I recreate here whatever will be left of those projects.
My kingdom for some GOTO code
When my family first purchased a computer, it took a few years for me to learn the ropes on it. I recall some unintended directory deletions while I was learning DOS, and at one point I thought I had truly broken the system through one of these errant deletes. The incident was only a mistakenly relocated set of files that broke a start-up routine, but it was not without its moments of vertigo that I had broken the family machine.
Eventually I got to understand command line customs, along with the basics of programming in the QBasic IDE, which came standard with MS-DOS and Windows for approximately nine years. Once I got the hang of basic user input and variable handling, I figured it was time to make games in QBasic.
Ah, to be young and just dive in! None of them were ever completed, though this does not bother me. I still believe just diving in is a handy practice.
Lend an ear and I’ll tell you about them.
The first effort was a fantastical text adventure with ANSI-style art inspired by the psychedelic landscapes of Kingdom of Kroz and Epic Megagames’ ZZT, but featuring the simple rules of a Choose your own Adventure novel. I got pretty far along before the tedium of hand drawing scenes row by row with the extended character set wore me down. I was still learning a lot.
The second game was identical in form, but took some less tasteful tones from Bethesda’s The Terminator title – an early stab for that studio at their now famous open-world design – as well as the Drugwars DOS game. I got even less far along than even the first game – just a couple of sequences before the player was abruptly dumped back into the sharp blue of QBasic’s IDE. I recall becoming bored and directionless at the monotone grimness the setting required, as well as the tedious, screen by screen gameplay.
The third game, and the most involved, was an RPG collaboration with an elementary school friend, very much modeled after the BBS classic Legend of the Red Dragon – but a single player affair. We had races, classes, a town, shops, NPCs, and had begun modeling the wilderness areas where the player would encounter whatever had to be fought there. However, school hedged in and the friend moved away, and our work stopped there.
I would give my right arm for the source code to any of these projects, but that last one hurts the most. My friend and I spent many hours and long nights developing the RPG – and never got very far – but this piece of digital content represents a huge investment of my enthusiasm and passion at that time. That it is utterly lost is painful. I don’t know what I could have done to have had the foresight to keep it, except to have kept the floppies around somehow by neglect. If this were a project nowadays, perhaps a forgotten email attachment could have wrought it up from the bog. Alas, at that time the only network we had was carting floppies between our houses.
There are other losses, such as my old MySpace page, which captures some of my disposition and contacts in the early college years, an embarrassing old fan site for a band I loved in high school, a lost DOOM level .wad – but the absence of this QBasic code hits strongest. This is simply how things get lost, alas – though I sigh wistfully when hearing of old game code being discovered. That someone, amazingly, has managed to create a modern game coded entirely in QBasic just makes me all the more wistful.
Citizens of tomorrow, your digital content – even if, like myself, you are not a heavy user of social media – can be profoundly important to you and very likely to others. Keep an eye on it, as I wish I had.