Changing the Perspective of Digital Preservation

Katherine Lawin

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description of an abandoned storage room full of useless “boxes of color slides and piles of floppy disks and other outdated media” truly does read as a loss that will be regretted by future generations.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.

Notes

[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.

Bibliography

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

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9 Comments

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  1. The example you use of your Prezi presentation from way back in the day being available for anyone to go dig up, is brilliant. We all all have those “needles in the haystack” that we hope no one will go looking for on the internet. What a great way to start off your post! I love when you say, “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.” Of course there are going to be many, many “needles in the haystack” like yours out there, but there are also treasures buried out there as well.

    I think it is really great that you divided Broussard’s ideas into two categories of “silly” and “very real”. When you say, “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,” you lay everything out so nicely–and makes me realize how very outdated a lot of these internet “storage rooms” there are.

    I agree with you that probably not EVERYTHING needs to be preserved on the internet, but if you think about it, it’s absolutely amazing how many “treasures” we can preserve.

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  2. II’m so glad you raised these points in opposition to these articles, because I also thought the authors were thinking more about some apocalypse than the natural preservation (and decay) process. As much as we might like to preserve every written work that comes into our hands, this just isn’t possible, as your piece mentioned. Human technology has always been limited, and probably always will be. Scrolls in the Library of Alexandria could be burned. Digital files can become corrupted or outdated. Either way, the process (and the result) is the same.

    To me, this raises another question: who decides what to save and what can be lost? We might unanimously agree that posterity will survive without that Jamaica Kincaid presentation, but what about more controversial works? My worry is not that we’ll lose texts in general, but that we’ll lose texts in a biased way. It’s possible that historical revisionists might conveniently decide to keep all files of, say, anti-Trump blog postings and let the pro-Trump postings succumb to bit rot. In this, we lose a piece of our history, leaving future generations an inaccurate view of what 2016 was really like. Unfortunately, though, this goes back to the first issue of not being able to save everything. We can try to save texts in a non-biased way, but we might just have to accept that something will be lost along the way.

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  3. I agree with Anne, I love that you lend a more skeptical eye to these articles. The idea of somehow losing all the knowledge in the world that is somehow contained in these books being a likely catastrophe is a lil’ silly. I also especially appreciate your posit that “the loss of knowledge is an unfortunate fact of human life” because it totally is, but for some reason humans still can’t cope with the inevitability of loss. Maybe it’s okay that your Prezi goes extinct. And even if anti-Trump sentiments are the only ones saved in 200 years, will it really be that big of a deal? We are still assuming that future generations will be interested in finding that particular needle—and if they are, are they not capable of forming their own thoughts on it? Archiving contemporary material is certainly valuable, but like Anne, I also wonder if it possibly to achieve it universally and in an unbiased way. Also, you emphasize a valuable point that “digital is as ephemeral as paper.” Simply preserving books digitally is not an eternal solution. Just as books are becoming “outdated,” it is likely that the internet may not forever be part of our lives—but is anything?

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  4. issuesinprofessionalediting May 11, 2016 — 1:45 am

    I agree with what everyone above said. I would also like to add that your skeptical analysis was even more powerful with your personal example. What added more to this was your voice throughout the piece. Though added in subtle bits like “(cough cough, eternal),” you’re voice adds another layer that keeps the reader interested and focused on what points you are making and how those differ than those you cite. I think you did such a good job of opposing Broussard, but then continued to draw parts of what she said into your own idea of what she should have said to make her piece less apocalyptic and more realistic and influential.
    Before you raised these oppositions, I did not realize how extreme some of Broussard’s points were. You did a good job shining a light on how some of her points were a little too extreme, whereas there were some that were right and consistent. I enjoyed how you brought her comment about the needles in haystacks into play right away. That was another point where your voice was perfectly shown in how you described your need as broken. It was a great mix of teasing, but the seriousness of the comment.

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  5. I agree with what everyone above said. I would also like to add that your skeptical analysis was even more powerful with your personal example. What added more to this was your voice throughout the piece. Though added in subtle bits like “(cough cough, eternal),” you’re voice adds another layer that keeps the reader interested and focused on what points you are making and how those differ than those you cite. I think you did such a good job of opposing Broussard, but then continued to draw parts of what she said into your own idea of what she should have said to make her piece less apocalyptic and more realistic and influential.
    Before you raised these oppositions, I did not realize how extreme some of Broussard’s points were. You did a good job shining a light on how some of her points were a little too extreme, whereas there were some that were right and consistent. I enjoyed how you brought her comment about the needles in haystacks into play right away. That was another point where your voice was perfectly shown in how you described your need as broken. It was a great mix of teasing, but the seriousness of the comment.

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  6. Morgan Alexander May 11, 2016 — 1:52 am

    I love the quote you included by Broussard, “the Internet Archive will allow you to find a needle in a haystack, but only if you already know approximately where the needle is.” This describes the internet perfectly as there are seemingly endless resources, but that all means nothing if you don’t know how to locate them. You either need to know what you are looking for specifically or you need to know how to best refine your search. I liked that you included the link to your Prezi presentation because I think it lent itself well to your point as well as satisfied the curiosity of your reader.

    I like how you bring up the issue of what constitutes being digitally preserved. This correlates well with another question that digital platforms bring up, which is what deserves to be published. Online publication eliminates the funnel that is acquisition editors because anybody can start a blog online and publish their own content.

    I think it was smart to point out the fear and anxiety that surrounds the opinions of the authors of the articles you mention. I would argue that this stems perhaps partially from our lack of understanding of the internet. Seeing at it is still relatively new, we do not all fully understand the capabilities and inner workings of the internet, which is scary. Add to that the fear of losing something you are trying to preserve and you have double anxiety. I agree with your point that we must be pragmatic about what we save, seeing as not everything really needs saving. But it raises an interesting question, who decides and how do they decide what is worthy of preservation?

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  7. Katie Ballalatak May 11, 2016 — 4:06 am

    Katie,
    I appreciate your blunt, logical point of view. You’re right– this topic is usually discussed with an air of anxiety. I think your distinction between trivial texts (like your prezi presentation) and actual important texts that deserve digital preservation was a necessary point to make. You also make a persuasive argument against the preservation of all digitized texts. “The loss of knowledge is an unfortunate fact of human life.” This was my favorite sentence of yours. It’s an unfortunate fact for sure, but one that should be remembered: knowledge will always be lost. This shouldn’t stop us from trying to preserve knowledge but it should change our mindset about how to achieve this preservation. Logic, not anxiety should lead the project. Like Morgan mentions in her comment, this brings up the interesting question of who gets to decide what is worth keeping and what’s not. Because, taking from your example of your prezi presentation about Jamaica Kincaid, if all of a sudden only your prezi presentation survived out of all the digitized information about Jamaica Kincaid, your contribution really does matter and digitizing that would be important. But how likely is it for that to happen? We don’t know.
    Over all, I think digital preservation is a big game of “what if’s” and it’s a rather trick (and anxiety-ridden) game to play.

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  8. Jeffrey Langan May 11, 2016 — 7:25 am

    I really enjoyed your piece, especially juxtaposed against advertisements for sites that boast archives (ie 3 million text pieces available). Restoring and preserving culture is extremely important, and it is important to include more than just the touchstones of culture, but at some point, decisions need to be made about what to keep.

    The passage about the needle in the haystack is interesting because I think it speaks a lot to the potential dangers of keeping everything. Have archives can be really satisfying, as having a bulk of work protected and preserved will allow people to refer to works as needed. The problem is, as you reference, the fact that many some of the texts that will take up space in the collection won’t be worth the space.

    It is a tricky distinction to make, especially since preserving a culture focuses around preserving the many viewpoints of it, even if those viewpoints seem lack luster or irrevelant. I would say better safe than sorry, but there are obviously more factors at play.

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  9. Alexis Gaither May 11, 2016 — 6:45 pm

    Is it bad that I kind of love that Prezi? So beautiful.
    You bring up some great points here. Are we all just freaking out over our impending digital doom? Does that impending doom even exist? So many questions. Future scholars, when examining the early 21st century, are going to have a difficult time sifting through the mass of content we’ve produced within the last 16 years. It will be absolutely impossible for them to examine the cultural significance of every commercial, television show, blog post, news article, or book, yet they’re all here online ready to be consumed.
    Waiting.
    But as you’ve said, it’s probably a good thing that they won’t all be consumed. While many scholars wish they could fill in the missing pieces of history with that one missing text, future scholars might struggle with the opposite problem—what was most important in 2016, this Amazon Prime commercial about falling into a “showhole” or maybe this meme of Kermit the frog or how about this article on Gwyneth Paltrow’s new line of soaps? All of the above have cultural significance, but we might not have to worry if they fall into the fray.
    I don’t think this idea that you’ve presented has any way undermined the idea of digital preservation, but instead asked people to relax a little bit about that Kermit the frog meme.

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