November 7, 2010

Notes on “Archiving Memory in the Age of Digital Technologies”

I am still playing conference catch-up. Between September 23 and October 3, 2010, I went to two conferences, the Imagining America conference in Seattle, and the Society for the History of Technology conference in Tacoma.

Diana Taylor

Diana Taylor

For now, I just want to share my notes on the keynote talk on September 24, 2010 by Diana Taylor at Imagining America. Taylor is an amazing academic and activist known for her book, The Archive and the Repertoire, and her work with the Hemispheric Institute of the Americas, the website and archive of which is based at New York University. Her talk was titled, “Save As…Archiving Memory in the Age of Digital Technologies.” She read her paper very fast, so my notes are sketchy. But it was a great talk; it’s lousy (for her!) she had a bad cold. The reason to post this now (SIX months later!) is that Imagining America just released a print version of this talk as a Foreseeable Futures pamphlet.

She began by referencing Clay Shirky‘s writings, and saying that access and preservation are not “co-terminous” with our time. What we know is radically altered by how we know it. The usual interpretation: body as ephemeral and archive as knowable and fixed.

Repertoire: collective thinking, knowing in place vs. Archive: but these are not static binaries

Digital databases combine “archives” with life. This phenomenon doesn’t usher in the age of the archive, or a new version of repertoire, but instead a mixed aspect that draws on and alters both.

The digital and the virtual are not interchangeable.

The new digital era is obsessed with that which is archived, conflated with “save,” “upload,” etc.

Collection, library, inventory, museum

Archive as fetishmurky understanding of what is saved, what is forgotten, and the political connotations of that

Place/thing/practice->each relies on other for its authority

Digital technology seems to hold promise that people can produce and control information (though surveillance also an issue.)

Taylor in her book noted the abuse of archive by constructors of past.

What is gained or lost by using the word “archive” to describe upload?

Hemispheric Institute (HI) archivetrilingual HI digital video library (HIDVL); postcolonial archive (Digital Iron Mountain)

Also HI has commissioned work; also born digital, ie, Amnezac

Politics of the copy (save as)return the original to owner

HIDVL—process of selection and validation does reproduce elitism, unlike YouTube: initially went after “classics” of performance in video that were in danger of being damaged (c. 2000)

Skeuamorphs like stickies, trash can, on computer can help users adapt.

Place/thing/practice change online, seeming “nowhereness” of digital archive; multi-sitedness of web

Time Magazine’s online archive has “erased” its own traces (ie, ads)…anti-archival

Anxiety about loss and forgetting feeds fascination with archive

Who owns the digital? How do we “act” online? Re: betw digital and repertoire?

Data and digitsways of experiencing ourselves shifting

“making” vs “adding” friends on Facebook

Taylor wrote about online collaborative teaching: “Translating Performance” Profession 2000 (MLA, 2002)

July 10, 2010

Digital Humanities 2010

Unfortunately I am not at the Digital Humanities conference in London right now. But I am following bits and pieces of it on Twitter #dh2010. Melissa Terra of University College London’s Centre for Digital Humanities gave the plenary today, “Present, Not Voting: Digital Humanities in the Panopticon.” One comment of hers that gave me pause was:

It’s not enough just to whack up a website and say “that’ll do, now back to writing books”. If we are going to be in the business of producing digital resources, we have to be able to excel at producing digital resources, and be conscious of our digital identity and digital presence.

She stressed that not only do we need to add to the digital collection, but we also have to archive things that are already digital but in danger of being lost due to outmoded software or platforms. YIKES! I have been toying with the idea of writing about the University of Local Knowledge using Sophie 2.0. My friend Brett Bloom, though, reminded me that perhaps this software would be hard to read in two years. Hmmm. So now I have signed up to follow Digital Humanities Now, a “fully automated” publication…”created by ingesting the Twitter feeds of hundreds of scholars followed by @dhnow.”

Another quote from Terra about the hazards of multimedia and online publishing in terms of the ever-so-slow-to-adapt academic culture:

It’s not enough to make something that is successful and interesting and well used: you have to write a paper about it that gets published in the Journal of Successful Academic Stuff to make that line on your CV count, and to justify your time spent on the project.

Yep. She concluded with a few suggestions for tackling present crises, including:

We’re bad at knowing our own history, as a discipline, and having examples listed off the top of our heads of why our research community is required in today’s academe.

Speaking of which, my interview with Wendy Plotkin about the early days of H-Net and H-Urban should be coming out in a couple of weeks in the Digital Humanities Quarterly. I will definitely tweet about it. UPDATE: It is linked here in the Fall 2010 issue.

February 27, 2009

Digital Stigmergic Collaboration

I like the word “stigmergy,” which according to Wikipedia means “a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of a subsequent action, by the same or a different agent. Stigmergy is a form of self-organization. It produces complex, apparently intelligent structures, without need for any planning, control, or even communication between the agents. As such it supports efficient collaboration between extremely simple agents, who lack any memory, intelligence or even awareness of each other.”
Now when we talk about the “emerging online practices [that] enable the extreme scaling seen in mass collaborative projects such as Wikipedia.org” that Mark Elliott wrote his dissertation about, we are starting to look at the new directions in the humanities that was the subject of a recent symposium at the University of Illinois. We heard John Unsworth talk about “The Value of Digitization for Libraries and Humanities Scholarship.” He outlined issues related to digital surrogates, and we discussed the two-way (at least) visibility of cultural heritage, in terms of audience and access. There were a number of interesting projects that John mentioned in passing that relate to stigmergy in one way or another: the InterPARES Project, The International Research on Permanent Authentic Records in Electronic Systems, now in its third phase; the Open Content Alliance; Educause.

I have a long way to go to really wrap my head around text mining, Zotero scraping of a database, and so on. My immediate response to ways to preserve and highlight “cultural infrastructure” is that it may be a response to the recent and recurrent call for making the humanities count for something. Patricia Cohen in the New York Times (February 25, 2009) wrote “In Tough Times, Humanities Must Justify Their Worth,” that “traditional liberal arts education is, by definition, not intended to prepare students for a specific vocation….Questions about the importance of the humanities in a complex and technologically demanding world have taken on new urgency.” She quoted Richard M. Freeland, the Massachusetts commissioner of higher education: “We’ve created a disjuncton between the liberal arts and sciences and our role as citizens and professionals.” Rather than ONLY emphasizing the “practical and economic value” of the humanities, however, which in the short term is hard to gauge imho, I think digital humanities in stigmergic collaboration could go a long way to address a range of human needs, including learning across differences.