Failure to Care; Digital Social Media

The Digital Social Media; Failure to Care video intrigued me because I am also interested in preserving blackness and black culture while confronting archival digitization for future generations. Particularly for marginalized people,  social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are proving to be a challenge.

Digital Archiving has proven to be a complicated nonlinear process that has many inter-tangled issues that drastically effect preservation dynamics for people of color and other marginalized communities.

Bergis Jules and his panel all make key points concerning the future of protecting, accessing and controlling the process of archival reporting and documenting Black culture. One particular statement that made me more curious about protecting the records of black contributors was how individuals have a right to not be included. Black people’s language and cultural traditions both spoken and unspoken, is often overlooked within the colonial background of exclusion and erasure from the historical record. People of color who are activist, artist and controversial figures are often targeted and eradicated.

One example the panel used was the murder of Korin Gaines, who recorded her illegal home invasion by police on Facebook.  She was shot and killed in front of her child. Facebook allowed police to sensor and remove her record of proof of what was occurring in that moment. Another case the panel mentioned was Philando Castille who was murdered by police while in his vehicle with his child and girlfriend present. His girlfriend used Facebook live as proof and protection of the ‘record’- that her boyfriend was not a criminal or was never guilty of any crime. She also used this record to describe context as the incident unfolded, only to be silenced later.

Stories such as these occur often among black and brown communities and are what make it obvious that black culture must take on the task to set their own records straight. Black culture and it’s “failure of care” for itself is very concerning and alarming. Though there are efforts to correct and address the concerns of exclusion, there is no sense of urgency. I agree that marginalized communities and their erased or silenced histories must be revisited and recreated for the digital age.  The work to be done is not so much for a white centered validation within the archive but for their own historical record and web archival approach.

Risks that people of color take to share their stories, art or ideas is daunting. Examples include the Coin-tel program created by the FBI to surveillance The Black Panther Party on the 1960s or the numerous assassination attempts on black leaders whose life work was to liberate and free people of color.   When it comes to black cultures documenting and reporting misconduct by police or government practices it becomes a dangerous and deadly task. The “white space” of web archives, as one speaker suggests, shed light as to how this is very intimidating practice is not taken into account when preserving narratives and history surrounding black people.

Does digital archiving for under-represented communities become this daunting task that nobody wants to do?  How do we listen to these voices of desperation and frustration; and single out what is important to the digital archival of blackness and what to leave out of the archive of blackness- for protection.

Building Community Archives in the Digital Age

In the post “Confronting Our Failed Care Around the Legacies of Marginalized People in the Archives,” Bergis Jules brought up a brilliant critique that sounds Macluhan-esque and yet also sharp and foreboding: “Because for digital collections, who gets represented is closely tied to who writes the software, who builds the tools, who produces the technical standards, and who provides the funding or other resources for that work.”

Building an archive often involves (or even requires) the bureaucratic backing of an established institution via funds and resources granted for such projects. As we have learned from our visit to the Morgan Library and to the New York City Public Library, for example, many library and archival collections were once part of the private possessions of the wealthiest and most influential families during the Gilded Age. The heads of those families were instrumental in obtaining precious items from archaeological expeditions and rare books that they strongly believed were important to preserve for posterity, thus creating and leaving behind their own legacy while lifting up their own social status. Much of what was selected for preservation relied heavily upon those patriarchs’ tastes, interests, and inclinations. And to be frank, their inclinations mostly arose from a desire to appear authoritative, prosperous, classically educated, and “cultured” among their immediate social circles. Oddly enough in trying to appear “cultured,” the history and legacy of other cultures faded into the background or got pushed to the margins.

We can’t really blame JP Morgan or John Jacob Astor for this, as they did value enriching and educating the public by donating their collections of books and artifacts. But we are still missing out on the stories and histories that aren’t there on the shelves, or which still need further research to refine our knowledge of those marginalized cultures. Even typing the word “marginalized” makes me feel uncomfortable and political in acknowledging that ethnic cultures such as my own and that of countless others either didn’t make it or just barely made it to the center of the page, thanks to colonialism and imperialist systems that were in place to stamp out and suppress that which seems native or not part of Eurocentric Judeo-Christian standards.

Even today as we develop and enhance our preservation practices to create, manage, and maintain digital archives, I would argue that there is a priority list of topics and cultures that are already well-researched and well-funded, and the order of priority is based on how many grants were given, from most to least. But instead of relying so heavily upon the government and established institutions to get marginalized groups’ cultural histories on the record and finally to the forefront, Jules provides us with a solution that is practical and also fosters growth: community archiving. “The evidence is abundant that people other than white men contributed to building this country,” Jules stated. “There is a lesson here for archivists about making sure our collections are about confronting truth and being comfortable about acknowledging the complexity of our history.”

Why wait for “the man” when we can build these archives ourselves by pooling our own resources, collections, oral histories, and cultural knowledge? Who better to fill in the gaps of history than us? We have the tools and the technical standards. There is bound to be someone who is well-versed in code who can develop the software, and someone trained in archiving. We can devise a series of social media and marketing campaigns to not only fundraise, but more importantly raise awareness about the issues that we find significant, pressing, and relevant to marginalized cultures. As Jules proposed, it’s time to move away from the practices of “institutionalized dehumanization” and place people of color at the forefront of telling their own ancestral and cultural histories.

The Library v The Archive


Reading the interview with Kate Eichhorns where she discusses the scope of feminists movements use of the archive and written materials and how the shifting approach towards ephemerality in these materials as the movements conditions changed was fascinating to me.

That at the beginning of the first wave of feminism most of the materials were so ephemeral both to the movement and the public that an archive wasn’t started until well after is indicative to me of what the various movements understanding of the permanence of their actions and their control over their own narrative was at the time. And later in the second wave where Eichhorn talks of the intention of small presses and zines intently having smaller distribution since “reaching an audience with shared political goals was often more important for these women than reaching a mass audience”. That  the ability to accumulate materials and control these materials in itself was representative of a working goal of the movement makes the archive appear much more inherently political.

Archives holding the ability to provide future context to the ‘blind spots’ that marginalized groups encounter in their times from lack of access or funding to publishing or other channels of getting information out shifted the lens of how I had been thinking about the act of creating and maintaining archives.

Eichhorn also stated that ‘the library and archive are active in the production of a somewhat different regime of truth’, libraries representative of information that navigated through social channels and was able to get published, and archives holding the unpublished materials.

This makes me think of the archive as more of a treasure map or collection of unanswered clues to future queries, where contrasted with the published or ‘library’ version of accounts, one can see what ultimately the material representation in an archive is indicative of; what the people making it were working against, since the published account would be the version of truth that the public (or at least the publishers segment) had accepted as one, whereas the archive material didn’t have that cultural traction yet.

This is substantiated by Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez’s discussion of the accents on the language in his work on the Argentine Dirty War; the computer programs hadn’t been programmed to accommodate an accurate conveyance of the names or information of the victims, because this wasn’t important to them. The advice he ran into from the coders or ‘mainstream’ to just alter/erase/scrub these details out in order to move forward towards a published account that was more accommodating of the already existent understanding of the information shows how mundane the act of conformity to power dynamics is.

In many ways these readings brought a lot of the concepts of this course full circle for me, in that they were illustrative of how an archive can be measured against the larger power systems and how instrumental controlling peoples archives is for future political reasons.

It’s OK to be forgotten

Since this is my last Post, I’ll take a moment to “process” a few things that I’ve been mulling over in my mind this semester:

The Archive as Infrastructure: Who is building these Infrastructures and for what purpose? I think of Google, Facebook and Amazon building these behemoths to collect, store, aggregate and disseminate data sets on people in order to make billions of dollars in advertising revenue. I think about the classic Archives built by often well-intentioned cis, white people that now have to be retro-fitted to include Others (or perhaps discarded for a better alternative?). And I think about what the Infrastructure does and does not keep out: people who don’t or shouldn’t have access; underserved populations; young children.

The Archive as a Data Set: What are the parameters of the Data Set, and how is it being collected? What conclusions should we or shouldn’t we draw from the Data? Should the Data be collected at all? What is missing from or not being included in the Data?

The Archive for the Intangible: What cannot be Archived properly, i.e. Music, Dance, Cultural Heritage, Context, Emotion?

The third category struck me during the first week of the course and it has been a theme throughout the readings and discussions. Overall, there is this deep tension between the Qualitative and the Quantitative: what is and is not in the Data. But what makes me even more uneasy than the general lack of public knowledge about the Data being collected on each and every person, is that even when informed they often don’t care. What is the Data on the cultural implications of not caring about Data?

I do believe we need to face the Archive head on in an effort to make it bend to the needs of its audience and contributors. But at what point can we admit that it’s OK for the Archive to be incomplete? When will it be OK to be forgotten?

Image: Monument for a Forgotten Future

Theory is a club/Foucault Jurassic Park


Ugh, theory is a club. Ugh, theory requires chops. Foucault’s name-dropping feels like the initiation of a secret handshake I don’t know the response to. While some of the most rewarding knowledge I’ve encountered alienates before it opens itself up, I can’t help but wonder what the academic world would be like if minds like Foucault slowed down. On the other hand, dense, stubborn text can serve the knowledge pool by requiring communal decodings which keep the academic environment alive, perhaps preventing some of the consolidation Foucault appears to examine, label, and account for epistemologically.

Breaking off one small part (and I could have this totally backwards) a priori as it is used in this selection refers to positivity of discourse. These collective positivities have certain characteristics that he stresses, including the tendency for reciprocal influencing with the elements they connect. All of this determines “decisive thresholds”.

Broadly (and a fixity of scope is something I feel Foucault struggles with providing his readers – but then again, theory in general addresses lofty atmospheric ideas over immediately tangible stimuli) It would seem that Foucault is questioning the ways human epistemological activity can rely on the collective concepts it generates in its wake.

Insert a silly reference to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, which, since it applies to theory, puts us ALL in a club, one which Foucault cannot rope off in part for VIP bottle service as he subdivides the atomic structure of bodies of knowledge, language – masses that no individual can conceive of in totality.

Insert sci-fi script idea of future super-intelligent A.I. thinking Foucault was the hippest human ever. They resurrect him a la jurassic park. Rather than provide entertainment, he questions their logic. Mayhem. Nobody makes it off of the island in one piece.

The Problem with Provenance

(I realize that I had skipped ahead to next week’s readings in my previous processing post “Building Community Archives in the Digital Age,” so here’s my processing post for today’s class, which also addresses similar topics.)

In his talk “RadTech Meets RadArch: Towards A New Principle for Archives and Archival Description,” Jarrett Drake focused on the colonial history and the implications of what provenance means in archival practice, especially when it comes to preserving digital material and records. Much like the concept of respect des fonds, provenance denotes conserving the original order of things. That is, maintaining and having the record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality.

Drake explains: “[A]t its most basic level, provenance thrives with the presence of a clear creator or ownership of records and with a hierarchical relationship between entities, both of which reflect the bureaucratic and corporate needs of the Western colonial, capitalist, and imperialist regimes in which archivists have most adhered to the principle. This principle, again, is the central organizing unit for description in most archival repositories and archivists must comes to terms with the ways in which we incorporate the privilege, power, and patriarchy of provenance into our everyday practices.”

I think Drake worded it best when he comprehensively and succinctly stated: “It bears mentioning that provenance emerged as a concept in the West at a time when most people were structurally if not legally excluded from ownership; ownership of their own bodies, minds, labor, property, and records. Its application in archives, which is close to 200 years old, reflects the limitation of state regimes in the West to recognize fully the human rights of indigenous Americans, black people, women, and gender non-conforming people.”

It’s easy to build something and write history according to one’s terms when the resources and the “right” to access those resources are well within one’s disposal. Drake terms these as (1) the legal privilege to create and own, and (2) the legal protection of that privilege. Skin color, ethnicity, and gender, for instance, were often used as walls that blocked privilege for those who were not typically white, male, cisgendered, straight, and wealthy. These arbitrary social indicators often defined one’s provenance and were used to justify the means of ownership, access to resources, and entry into particular social circles.

One example of archival information containing provenance, as Drake states, is the biographical note: “[A]rchivists often write massive memorials and monuments to wealthy, white, cisgendered and heterosexual men, including selective details about the creator that have minimal bearing on the records, and instead serve to valorize and venerate white western masculinity.”

By “valorizing” and “venerating” only a select few who represent a miniscule scale on the spectrum of humanity, we will never get the full picture of the history of the world. If we don’t try to make improvements in the patriarchal path of archival practice now and make efforts to create other types of archives that incorporate more diversity, then we run the risk of ignoring and even erasing entire populations’ stories, accomplishments, social contributions, traditions, and cultural diversity. It doesn’t matter how vast the collection; in the end we would all lose and miss out on untold stories and unshared cultural treasures simply because provenance dictates that we adhere to a patriarchal status quo.

Repertoire and quality over “keeping everything”

I found really interesting the readings of this week, mostly because I realized how my own ideas of archiving and “preservation” are related to a colonial construction and to a written culture, though I am from a country that suffers exactly from that and also has a strong embodied culture (Brazil). Diana Taylor’s and Foucault’s texts made me think about History classes I had during my school years, when our Brazilian history was taught from its “beginning”, which was considered the year of 1500 when the country was “discovered” by the Portuguese. It was only at the end of high school that we had a professor including indigenous history and indigenous culture in our History class, as before that we learned about that in Geography class only as a cultural aspect of Brazilian society, but not as a Historical aspect.

Besides, indigenous (or should I say native?) repertoire is present in our language, food, music body language, but when we discuss it with other people it is mostly to talk about what we can document, thus, archive. Because many of its culture and knowledge are unfortunately really disappearing, I believe the “archival impulse” has an important aspect in “archiving” it. But, as Taylor points out, there are probably other ways to ensure the permanence of this repertoire respecting their system of organization and transmission, therefore leaving the “archive fever” aside. In this regard, Tara Robertson’s discussion about what to show, how to give access and how to organize archives is really relevant, as, again, we (and I include myself) tend to believe that there is only one correct and efficient method of archiving as well as one “place” to keep knowledge.

In this connection, Pierre Nora’s concepts of “lieux” and “milieux de mémoire” and Taylor’s opinion regarding the polarization of these concepts, as well as the polarization of history and memory, makes me believe there are ways to transmit knowledge and culture that can prevent or at least reduce the maintenance of a repressive social order. This includes trying to break the rational tendency of dividing and polarizing knowledge and though. Furthermore, reducing our anxiety to save everything, being able to acknowledge that an ethical and well discussed procedure of archiving is more important, might be an interesting path to take. Quality more than quantity.

New Considerations

At times, in these readings, I am frustrated. Ann Stoler brings up relevant and vital issues about colonial archives: provenance. Colonialism permanently changes a place and archives reflect that, and there is important work being done to go back and think about how we know what we know. We need to not just question the content of the archive, but to also question how the archive was constructed. We do this to get closer to some “truth” of the place/time/event. After reading the issues she brings up, I am frustrated by how limited the archive can be. It is part of a picture, not the whole picture. Just like our narratives of history. It’s left up to us on what to do with the issues.

In the article by Jarrett Drake, he talks about the history of provenance and how, historically, archives became different from libraries, which I found very helpful! It aided my understanding in the potential of the archive and the limits of it at the same time. Aside from the more sinister parts of colonialism in the archive (people’s experiences it leaves out at best, and aiding the ugliness of the continued rule of the white patriarchy at worst) seems to be a kind of organizational tool. Drake asks how we organize the digital archive at a time when we can expand whose voices are included in it.

Levels of Visibility Permanence

The new era of archives is all about inclusion and challenging established “purposeless” methods of classification. The current discussion revolves around open mindedness and the brake of structural archival organization as to make it more democratic and reflective of contemporary times.

On paper it seems a positive step forward, yet this poses other troubles. For example, in the case of pre-internet material being digitized in order to be preserved, our new direction poses questions of not only copyright but of ethical values for the creators exposure. We constantly criticize that the archives are not all inclusive, yet when someone takes a group of work and decides to take it all in it is also villainized. We say that our hierarchy structures are faulty but we continuously create more hierarchical valorations. Erotica or Porn?, in the case of Tara’s article.

So, when reading Foucault when he states that all has to be considered including the incoherences, I am confused as to how will we get to an agreement of what is archival due process and what is not. I guess my main questions are, if every time a material changes medium the questions of ethics in terms of exposure have to be revised? and also, what are then the levels and considerations of visibility permanence?

Classified is a tease

This week readings were refreshing to me in how they showed archives being reactivated again from different perspectives.

One topic that struck me was of ‘classified’ information that Stolers talks about in her essay on Colonial Archives.  I found it to be an interesting insight into how cultural cohesion (or not) within the organization of an archive is important.  Stoler discovered in her research of Dutch colonial archives that ‘classified’ information wasn’t so much a secret but information that was unclassifiable, ’not necessarily secreted truths about the state, but promises of confidences shared’.  Or information that couldn’t be agreed on in terms of how or why a particular thing occurred, which seems to suggest that schisms in terms of interests for how an event should be archived and remembered is what creates these sensitivities.

Wikipedia defines classified as ‘material that a government body claims is sensitive information that requires protection of confidentiality, integrity, or availability. Access is restricted by law or regulation to particular groups of people’

Is ‘classified’ then a term that reports are labelled with when the information doesn’t line up with the archives overarching cultural narrative or risks undermining and restructuring parts of it?  And what would allow for something to be omitted altogether instead of being considered ‘classified’ within a political archival framework?

That these secrets may ‘index the changing terms of what was considered “common sense,” as well as changes in political rationality’ reminds me of how often conspiracy theories spring from the knowledge that certain information has been classified.  Ultimately that classification, if noted by the public, has the effect of announcing itself as something to speculate on instead of making the topic go away, which seems like a strange side-effect of classified information.

Knowledge commons of the Internet

In an attempt to understand the implications of the upcoming decisions on repealing net neutrality laws in the USA, I reread Charlotte Hess and Elinor Ostroms piece ‘An Overview of the Knowledge Commons’ from the Ecologies of Information week and Susan Leigh Stars piece ‘The Ethnography of Infrastructure’  to glean  what kind of commons this act will change the internet into, and where it currently falls in terms of its definition of subtractablilty and excludability.

With net neutrality there has been low subtractability and excludability thus far, but with further privatization of the infrastructure it could soon become a high subtractability and excludable space.  Besides the larger economic control that providers will have on the ‘infrastructural highways’, how will this changing shape of the internet alter peoples behaviors?

Several years ago the Scientific American published an article looking at how our users had adapted to internet use.  The outcome that this article and others have found is there there is less reliance on other humans for information, or traditional ‘hard’ copies of knowledge, and more on the ability to ‘find’ via the internet the answer. What will the shift from users having had open range or *algorithmic*  access to information and data to it being privatized do to peoples cognitive patterns of storing and accessing information?  Does this tightening of access to knowledge signify that the era of individuals ‘attention as products’ use (‘If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold’) is changing?



Processing Post

If we are to learn form history, making an important work accessible would promise a longer life. Plato’s Dialogues that lured the average literate Athenian outlives his technical and much less popular works. Regarding Classical Chinese, many essays by high level officials were lost, but a entry-level collection called Guwen Guzhi (the Finest of Ancient Prose), edited by two intellectuals in a small village in the south three hundred years ago has become one of the most widely distributed selections.

Although many classics have been preserved, most of art and artists faded. Cryptology dates back to when humans needed to send long distance messages for the first time, but only the most extraordinary techniques have left imprints to us today. When an old image is presented to me, it may also remind me of the majority of memories around the same event that were no long available.

Speaking of actual storage methods, I thought floppy disks were fascinating when I first used one, and envisioned storing some important and secretive messages in it. It seems challenging to specifically preserve a corpus of information. The SFF works I’ve read haven’t provided much fresh thinking. The stories depicts encoding text into the surface of a planet or sending a living human brain to aliens for an exchange of intelligence. Those futuristic novels rather demonstrate exploring than archiving.

Google Books: A Metadata Train Wreck

Google Books: A Meta Data Train Wreck by Geoff Nunberg definitely made me think deeply about the serious ramifications of Google’s digital archivist and their motivations to scan quality books and literature onto the web. It made me wonder if the motivations of google’s archivists were taking this very new problem to heart.

This “train wreck” that google has made for itself, especially as the largest and more popular go to search engine, is both amazing and disturbing.  Its amazing because they have taken on a major feat for the future of digital archiving which is commendable, yet are they doing it for the right reasons?  I immediately thought of the next generation of researchers, historians and book collectors. Would these fresh minds be mislead, misinformed or be forever digging for the factual records of these works? Would these new researchers have to verify and double check dates and meta data concerning books stored by the Google?

If Google is purposely manipulating or altering meta data of books searched on their site, it is a sign that the future of digital archiving is in trouble. According to Geoff Nunberg, Google has a very large portion of it’s collections systematically mis-dated and with hundreds of thousands of classifications errors.  For example, it carries a catalog of copyright entries from the Library of Congress listed under “Drama”.   Nunberg argues that these mistakes are prevalent throughout the system but who is to blame for this? Should we blame the publisher? Should we blame librarians? or should the mislabeling of books on google’s attempt to compete with Amazon?

Google must look deeper at it’s responsibility for future digital archiving and the importance of this practice.  This important practice of storing and scanning literature can not be taken lightly and Google should understand its vital role in this effort to preserve literature and history.  Future scholars will use Google’s files and collections in the future and if Google has not decided to correct this issue, I am afraid we will continue into a world of “fake information” and just unreliable hit and miss “googling”.

It makes me nervous when Google executives are confronted with these concerns and begin to pass on the responsibility to librarians, users and providers of the materials. It makes me concerned about future meta data scanned by Google Books. Will they have the best intentions for the people or will they become this private data-mining company that harbor information?  Will they become this meta data monopoly providing books to a certain social class?

Nature & The Archive

From archiving ice to an artist’s dated computer work, the materiality of capturing the ephemeral materiality is a huge part of the archive. Figuring out, in a rapidly changing climate, how to archive and subsequently learn about our own earthly environment is important to our very existence.

The ice archive fascinated me and that’s what I chose to focus on for my presentation. A few things that stood out to me here are:

  1. Scientist plays the role of the archivist. When archiving nature, we have a group of professionals that are not experts in saving, but in studying/experimenting. What does that mean for how the archive is organized? Are all these scientist/archivists talking around the world? Are they working together to determine what to archive most efficiently?
  2. I have seen the natural world displayed in museums and various exhibits, but I haven’t thought of it in a living and breathing archive. This is an archive that takes an immense amount of energy to upkeep…and there is a deep irony of using the earth’s resources to save the earth’s creations.
  3. If we lose some species of insects or plants in our future, will the archive play a role in saving our existence? Should we be looking at our “nature” archives in this way?


Silence Between the Notes


Claude Debussy famously said, “Music is the silence between the notes.” In this same way, Wolfgang Ernst expresses a need for us to remember that in the digitization of the Archive, we will experience a lossiness of intention implied by the creating body.

Even in expressing through new media there is a “lossiness” of intention. In texts, or Twitter and Facebook posts, or even the “arcane” email  – often it is difficult TO READ INTENTION. there is a removal of latency tone body language (see what i did there)?

Just this weekend, John Oliver on Last Week Tonight, implored people to read through transcripts of No. 45’s speeches to see the lack of linear thought and coherent expression in his use of language.

I agree that tone, intention, the space between the notes, is difficult to express and difficult to digitize.

E. Coli is now a Movie Star!

Out with the Old, In with the New… not exactly. Technology is interconnected. The software and hardware may become obsolete, yet what is produced from them are not. It is this interconnectivity that makes digital material so hard to store and preserve.

This week what has impacted me the most is human behavior in relationship to stuff and its environment. We create stuff, destroy stuff, and then become insanely anxious about not having “The” stuff so we hoard, in a last attempt to conserve it and have it available. Hint: We are saving motion pictures in DNA. I will not be a hypocrite and say that this is not intriguing and exciting. The thought of cell spies is very interesting, yet at the same time I feel it is a symptom of our recklessness. The only reason we would need spy cells is too counteract our own neglect in tacking care of ourselves (not to discredit scientific advancements).

On that same note, after reading “Arks of the Apocalypse” by Malia Wollan I literally cried. Bio banks, Coral Nurseries, Environmental Banks, Milk Banks! It all seems insane to me. We are saving all this biological material in the hopes that in the future “smarter scientists” fix the mess we created. In this regard, the reason behind this practice I feel distorts the concept of the archive, because we are no longer conserving materials to preserve knowledge or a picture of a time. What we are doing is amassing anything and everything. In the end, what will we do with all of it? Anything can happen (and things have happened and will continue to happen), and stored material can be lost in a blink of an eye. So, shouldn’t we be more considerate with our environment and our intellectual creations and change our behavior now? There is so much the Archive can do or handle.

archives for the apocalypse and for digital media

The readings from this week made me realize two very different paths that seems to be happening with the use and conception of archive and media storage nowadays. As the text “Arks of Apocalypse” explains, we are living in the Anthropocene epoch, meaning that we know we are destroying our ecosystems so we are trying to save everything we can, creating the many repositories places around the world (repositories of seeds, animals, ice) in the last years. On the other hand, the internet and the digital media have been changing the idea of the archive. The archival media memory is, as Wolfgang Ernst reveals, intrinsically related to a time-based organization instead of a spatial one, becoming what he calls “de-monumentalized”.

It seems that these repositories places are the current stronger example of archive in the “traditional” sense, meaning a process of choosing what to preserve (and what not to) with a place to carefully storage everything, in which access is not easy (physically and bureaucratically), and in which there is a very linear and written-based order to organize, whereas the internet and the digital media is more like an anarchive, with no specific place and in which discontinuity and ephemerality are part of. The first one gives us a feeling of stability that can save all we need (in an unstable world) while the second is a “constant dynamic flow of information” in which we have to deal with absence (p. 110).

I wonder why these two almost opposite processes are happening at the same time and how can one give the other any “release” of their own processes.

Stranger than Science Fiction: DNA Storage for Film Clips & Shakespeare’s Sonnets?!

I read through the articles about ice as a medium for storage, the frozen zoos, and other types of “Arks of the Apocalypse” to archive and preserve our planet’s ecological biodiversity for posterity. But it was the New York Times article, “Who Needs Hard Drives? Scientists Store Film Clip in DNA” that struck me as the most intriguing among this week’s selection of readings. Since I had majored in psychology as an undergraduate student and spent a lot of time reading about Rene Descartes and the notion of mind-body dualism in my philosophy classes, I needed to wrap my head around what it meant that we can now use DNA as storage spaces for various types of information after coming across this fairly recent article.

DNA itself is codified organic material made up primarily out of four types of nucleotide protein bases—adenine (A), guanine (G), thymine (T), and cytocine (C). DNA, our biology, is physical matter, whereas our minds are on the metaphysical cognitive level. From a classical Cartesian mind-body dualism perspective the brain (as an organ in the body) is separate from the mind, which is simultaneously a generator, processor, and repository of information, knowledge, beliefs, desires, and dreams. Mental events are side effects of complex physiological systems becoming activated (e.g. neurons firing to send signals to the rest of the brain when processing external environmental stimuli or reacting to an internal physiological reaction). Mental events (thoughts/feelings/mental images) are not exactly the brain activity itself. So if DNA is part of the physiological structure, how can visual media data containing mental images be encoded into DNA?

CAT scans and MRIs can show us the structural lobe areas of the brain, and EEGs can highlight the neurological activation in process in relation to their location in the brain, but these tests don’t really tell us much about what the person is actually thinking and/or feeling at the moment that these data are captured, unless the person being examined tells the evaluator. You can screen a person to see that they’re probably hungry if their hypothalamus is active, but unless the person explicitly states it, you cannot really know what specific kind of food they might be craving in that exact moment (e.g. a cheeseburger with fries from Wendy’s as opposed to a fruit salad).

So what does all of this mean now when scientists claim that we can now store visual media data, such as clips from a motion picture or snippets of Shakespeare’s sonnets, into strips of DNA as an alternative/new place to store our media archaeology? DNA holds organic information, so how does one translate and transcribe visual media data (e.g. pixels) into codified protein base instructions into bacterial cells for film archival preservation?

It sounds like crazy science fiction, but it amazes me how geneticists and other scientists have come up with ways to execute this idea of storing data in bacterial DNA. I think this could possibly revolutionize heath care industry in terms of accurately monitoring, diagnosing, and treating patients on a longitudinal scale (e.g. cancer patients). As quoted from the article: “The idea is to have bacteria engineered as recording devices drift up to the brain in the blood and take notes for a while. Scientists would then extract the bacteria and examine their DNA to see what they had observed in the brain neurons.”

Sure, “DNA bacterial data storage”—as I’m going to call it (that sounds so odd!)—could be a sustainable organic solution to the problem we have of trying to minimize wasteful media materials (e.g. discarded discs, decayed magnetic tapes, etc.). I can accept and believe Dr. George Church when he asserts that “Storing information in DNA is this side of science fiction.”

However, I’m still left wondering about the ethical implications of all of this in terms of just how we are going to use these methods to address social issues if geneticists expand beyond bacterial DNA and move to human DNA to store media data. While it would be edgy to say at a party that I literally have Shakespeare’s sonnets embedded in my DNA (as opposed to joking that poetry’s in my soul), I have to question what other practical purposes this kind of data codification, storage, and archival preservation would serve in the broader auspices of institutional infrastructures.

What would the government do if they knew I had classified information encoded in my body? Am I a piece of property if I am the only individual (literally) carrying DNA with sensitive secrets (such as the instructions to a medical cure, the whole coding language for digital and analog media files to DNA storage, or the geographical location of a nuclear weapon) on my person? Where would my human rights begin and my ownership of this data end?

Maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe I’m missing something here and need to do more research on the topic. But what I do know is that truth is stranger than science fiction. It’s epistemologically mind-blowing.

Preserving Sound + Image While Keeping Sustainability In Mind

One of the challenges of capturing and archiving sound and image from the past is preserving the material of the mediums on which the data was recorded. Prelinger was innovative in having the foresight to preserve old discarded educational film reels dating since the WWII era, and it’s great to see that people still find his film archive to be useful for research and other kinds of media production. I’m curious about how the Library of Congress is preserving each delicate film reel from the collection they had acquired from Prelinger. It’s one thing to have a temperature-controlled vault within a building to store them. However, I would imagine that the actual handling of the material, many of which are probably at least over seventy years old, would still have to go through some kind of preservation and/or restoration process.

Even when it comes to recording and archiving performance art, such as spoken word poetry, we still face the same issue of trying to preserve an ephemeral experience in a more permanent medium that could withstand time. “The Politics of Film Archival Practice” touches on these same issues of exploring the processes of preservation and restoration of materials. As old and current media formats get outdated and replaced by newer technological advances, we still have to consider which sets of materials are worth saving and ensure that data is not lost and that the quality of the materials is not sacrificed in the process. In her piece “Chemistry is Restoring our Audio History from Melting,” Katherine Gammon wrote about the gradual degeneration of tapes, discs, and film recording materials, and she also addressed the ways in which they are being restored and preserved through high-resolution digitization. This reminded me of our previous reading from Zack Lischer-Katz, “Studying the Materiality of Media Archives in the Age of Digitization: Forensics, Infrastructures, and Ecologies.” As we replace old film reels with data servers, but we also need to keep in mind the effects that our media waste in archival practices have on our ecological environments.


What struck me in this weeks readings was the handling of decay and ‘dematerialization’ of sounds discussed in Alvin Luciers piece.   It reminded me of how similar personal memories are subject to disintegration, the inevitably of fading of certain parts and amplification of other parts until they can be completely obliterated or forgotten if there isn’t some sort of structure or distinct outcome.  And also the reason that we tell stories or memories to one person, but not another seems to function in an equally selective way as to who gets to have access to things that are important, or can only be understood in certain circumstances.

It seems natural that presentism of evaluating an objects impacts access to them, but that sounds have the added layer of needing secondary access through another device or transference makes them seem much more fragile.  Like personal memories, if the person disappears, like the technology, they will be gone forever, whereas with an object, it will forever exist in some form, even in a less perfect way.