In this world bursting with online academic resources, nothing quite conveys a reputation of scholarly prestige more effectively than a dramatically themed Prezi[i] presentation. Bonus points if your Prezi outline contains a brightly colored, uninhabited island, active volcano, treasure map, a lifetime’s worth of future regret, and a pirate ship to illustrate the cultural and historical context surrounding Jamaica Kincaid’s nonfiction work, A Small Place.[ii] We have now arrived at the deepest, most enduring source of the majority of my shame. I confess that on November 19, 2012,[iii] my partner and I stood in front of a class of twenty honors students and discussed the potential literary influence of Kincaid’s late-in-life conversion to Judaism using a presentation that sported a human skull and pink cursive text. Unsurprisingly, the presentation was a disaster, and (primarily out of a basic instinct for survival) the memories of which I managed to repress until April 8, 2016. As I read through the words of Meredith Broussard, author of “The Irony of Writing Online About Digital Preservation,” I stumbled upon the heading, “The Internet Archive will allow you to find a needle in a haystack, but only if you already know approximately where the needle is.” I paused, out of all the literature, discussion, and analysis concerning Jamaica Kincaid’s life and prolific career; I have my own rusty, dull, broken needle in a haystack.
In “The Irony of Writing Online About Digital Preservation,” Broussard expresses her gratitude towards the Internet Archive for “preserving our collective digital memory.” However, I am convinced that even Broussard would not mourn the loss of my Kincaid presentation among the far more insightful, less embarrassing scholarly analyses. In fact, inserting my lousy presentation within Broussard’s narrative flips the reader’s perspective. In the first paragraph of “The Irony of Writing Online About Digital Preservation,” Broussard describes a “moving,” “masterfully written” article under the threat of digital death, conveying the fear that “most media companies use a preservation strategy that resembles Swiss cheese.” With such a premise, that every article, news story, or blog post deserves digital preservation, Broussard’s description of an abandoned storage room full of useless “boxes of color slides and piles of floppy disks and other outdated media” truly does read as a loss that will be regretted by future generations. This “doomsday” perspective, however, is nonsensical.
Now, I would like to take a brief moment to differentiate between the silliness of Broussard’s perspective and the very real issues facing digital preservationists. Indeed, the usability and longevity of digital archives must not only overcome the vast disorganization of the online world, but also address the reliance on rapidly changing, nonstandard software, highly controlled access to online texts, and large inconsistencies in funding (outlined by Kenneth Prince in “Electronic Scholarly Editions”). However, I would also classify Broussard’s expectation of complete digital preservation as one of these problems.
The loss of knowledge is an unfortunate fact of human life. In fact, Rhian Sasseen’s mention of “the fire at the Library of Alexandria” in “Bit Rot: The Internet Never Forgets, or Does it?” illustrates the prevalence of this loss throughout history. It is silly to assume that we can preserve the entire collective of digital information. Yet, for the first time, the onset of the technological age tantalizes us with the possibility. In the words of Ashley Eklof, “We’ve got to keep them [e-books]…we [can] have those books forever. They’ll never, essentially, decay, as long as they’re basically on some servers.” Joining the opinions of many, Eklof believes that the Internet is a potential tool for long-term (cough, cough, eternal) data storage. However, as illustrated by my lousy Kincaid presentation, not every article, news story, or scholarly source within the digital sphere deserves preservation in a digital archive.
As such, why is the anxiety-ridden tone of Broussard’s narrative so common within this genre of digital preservation? In “Bit Rot: The Internet Never Forgets, or Does it?,” Sasseen uses emotionally triggering words like “abhors,” “nightmarish,” and “cannibalizing” throughout the description of “bit rot,” a concept of data loss that he later describes as “more akin to the loss of a page number in a book’s index – irritating but hardly a guaranteed disaster.” Now, perhaps Sasseen and I possess very different perspectives on cannibalism. Maybe Sasseen really does view ingesting human flesh and missing a page number on comparable levels, but perhaps (more likely) Sasseen isn’t actually comparing cannibalism to bit rot at all. As it turns out, Sasseen uses the example of bit rot, not because it represents a significant threat to data preservation, but because it represents a much more terrifying (and much less logical) fear; the fear surrounding the “less stable” nature of digital archives and the worry that we will unknowingly lose our collective digital history. “Bit Rot: The Internet Never Forgets, or Does it?” illustrates both the anxiety surrounding the loss of digital data and the flaws of the man-made digital system, refuting the belief that the digital world is a tool for the eternal preservation of data. Fortunately for my self-esteem, the continued existence of Jamaica Kincaid’s uninhabited treasure island—assuming that it remains unpopular and forgotten—is unlikely. After all, “All bit rot proves is that digital is as ephemeral as paper,” and that the loss of text is inevitable in any form.
It would appear as though I am not alone in this perspective. For example, user KAI! Medeses commented on “The Irony of Writing Online About Digital Preservation,” offering unimaginably silly solutions for data preservation. Suggesting, “Perhaps we should send mirrors deep into space and use lasers to trap the data in an endless loop bouncing and reflecting off of mirrors for eternity. Or if we can travel faster than the speed of light and communicate at that speed. We could send a giant telescope far enough into space that we could observe all of human history as the light from[iv] earth travels into space at the rather slow speed of 186,000 miles per second.” Although rather convoluted and frankly possessing very little scientific basis, KAI! Medeses exposes how absurd it is to bestow the entirety of our digital collection with lasting historical significance, and consequently, how silly it is to search for ways of all-inconclusive digital preservation. Similarly, commenters Walter Haugen and Stephen Kahn captured the irrationality exhibited by “Bit rot: The Internet Never Forgets, or Does it?,” describing data loss as “another invention of a ‘crisis’ that is merely an inconvenience,” and as “Eventually, the sun will go Nova. Our planet, our solar system, every trace of our existence will be gone,” respectively.
Although a product of my own scholarly analysis, I would not credit my Kincaid presentation with preserving human knowledge or intellect. In all honesty, preserving it would only clutter and convolute other sources on the subject. Even though I agree that protecting a good portion of our digital history is important, “A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid” and others like it would be unnecessary additions to digital archives. While we must also address exactly how to determine which texts to conserve, I encourage approaching future analysis of the vast social and technological issues surrounding digital preservation with a pragmatic mindset rather than one defined by anxiety and fear.
[i]The https://prezi.com homepage contains many single-line descriptions of their product, including “The presentation software for when it matters,” “It’s not a presentation. It’s a conversation I can adapt on the fly,” and “Prezi is my secret weapon” superimposed over a collage of thin, attractive, white businessmen.
[ii] Link to the presentation, https://prezi.com/8vzmjsbgwdk6/a-small-place-by-jamaica-kincaid/
[iii] The presentation date now states April 8, 2016, because I changed the name of my presentation partner. The original Prezi was last accessed on November 19, 2012.
[iv] Replaced a clear typo, “form” with “from” within the quotation.
Broussard, Meredith. “The Irony of Writing Online About Digital Preservation.” The Atlantic, November 20, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com.
Price, Kenneth M. “Electronic Scholarly Editions.” A Companion to Digital Literary Studies. Edited by Siemens, Ray and Susan Schreibman. Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Blackwell Reference Online.
Sasseen, Rhian. “Bit rot: The Internet never forgets, or does it?.” Aljazeera America, March 18, 2014. http://america.aljazeera.com