Saturday, 14 March 2015

MEDIA ARCHAEOLOGY AND ARCHIVING INTERNET PHENOMENA

WEEKEND EDITION

BY LEAH MONCADA

As a trained archaeologist, sometimes I take a step back and look at our ephemeral world and just panic for a second. If you remember my last post, you might be surprised to learn that despite my interest in the immense possibilities of digital creativity and social phenomena, online content (such as this very blog!) terrify me, just a little. The very idea of prolific social discourses that permeate multiple layers of our cultural existence (and even the human condition), but which are not recorded in such a format that can be read in 500 years make me question whether this era will be tragically misunderstood in centuries to come. Historians and archaeologists heavily rely upon the physical texts of papyri, cuneiform tablets, wall carvings, and other media to discover valuable information about the peoples they are researching. Having studied cultures whose writings are either lost in the archaeological record or are indecipherable, I understand how little we can definitively know about such groups.

Internet web tree map branch link
A map of a (small) section of the internet. Source.

When I then cast my eye on our modern world, it is almost impossible to quantify the amount of our lives that leave only digital traces. Just think of the amount of data only found in emails, usb keys, computer files, external hard-drives, and cloud internet storage. The amount of phenomena that have no *physical* record, (such as the twitterverse, viral videos, memes, commercials, broadcast networks, photo or mp3 music libraries, apps, operating systems, video games, online communities like Ravelry, FanFiction or Tumblr), make up such a huge part of both the infrastructure of our culture and also the culture itself, yet are entirely dependent upon a compatible power source and reading mechanism.

Will technology in the future be incompatible to ours, and be unable to read or access our material remains? There are a plethora of potential issues, many of which (such as with the floppy disk or other forms of early media storage) that we already encounter, including inaccessible data file formats such as obsolete word processing programs, and damaged file storage devices.

floppy disk
The infamous Floppy Disk. Source.
Many museums have acted with wise foresight to these issues. Cataloguing records are frequently stored both in print and online in case the hard drive is damaged or wiped. (Usually these steps are taken in case of fire or flood, but I rest my case on citing 'fear of inaccessible hard drive due to damage'.) As well, conservation methods usually avoid the digitization of certain media types, such as analogue film and photography, whose negatives can still be accessed and read using non-electronic means (and where digitization sometimes risks damaging the original). Over the past few decades, the wealth of digital publications has spurred the creation of new departments dedicated to digital media, and sometimes even entire museums dedicated to digital heritage.

Outside of museums, the development of measures to preserve our digital culture has also begun, such as the partnership between the Library of Congress and Twitter to archive all 170 billion+ tweets (counted as of January 2013). We are now collecting digital heritage in the moment it is created. I can almost sense an increased taste of anxiety in the air, as though the rest of the world has slowly woken to our future problem of preserving non-published and unstable (i.e. evolving) digital records.

Fittingly, there is a new field of archaeology called ‘Media Archaeology’, where trowels are traded in for complex computer codes. To assist in this future method of archaeology, the Olive Executable Archive at Carnegie Mellon University has created an archive of digital programs, whose records do not need to be read using devices that have pre-installed compatible software. *Anyone* can read these files and programs, even archaeologists far in the future. (Potentially. That is, at least, the hope.) The Olive Archive creates virtual machine 'snapshots’, so as to reproduce the software specifics needed to run each saved program. Other such programs like Archive Team or the Wayback machine work to preserve websites who have either been deleted or heavily overwritten. The act of archiving the internet (and specifically the 'edit history' of the internet) has raised profound implications and narratives that contribute to our understanding of modern events, but also raise issues of privacy, personal property, and numerous ethical questions surrounding erased and deleted web items.

I cannot presume to predict the future. Will the efforts of these organizations, who work to preserve the ephemeral world of today for the knowledge of tomorrow, facilitate the 'excavation' of today's cultures 500 years from now? (Will we as a species even exist 500 years from now?) Or will archaeologists in 2515 brush the dirt off cracked and dented laptops, and like we do with many archaeological objects, make a note of their physical existence but only hypothesize on what they actually say, leaving our era to be regarded as simply yet another 'dark age'?


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