The Fetish of the Digital

Happy New Year to all our readers.

We are lucky enough to start 2009 with a guest blog post from Dr James Currall, Director of Information Strategy, IT Services & HATII Senior Research Fellow, University of Glasgow.

James has been involved with the highly successful Glasgow MPhil (now MSc) course in Information Management and Preservation since it inception, in which he teaches about the transition from storage of information on physical to digital media, information security, the role of numbers as information and a variety of other topics including risk and information management as an investment. In this latter context he was the Project Director of the espida project which developed a sustainable business-focussed model for digital preservation. He gave a plenary talk on Web preservation at last year’s Institutional Web Management Workshop (IWMW 2008) entitled The Tangled Web is but a Fleeting Dream … but then again … which was very well received and is available to watch on Google Video.

And I’ll pass you over to James…

A few weeks back, I was involved in a discussion about the skills required by people involved in Digital Curation and much of that discussion was based around the DigCCurr Project which has a long list of skills, some of which are specific to Digital Curation, but many of which are rather of a more general nature. And this set me on a dangerous course – thinking ….What exactly is this ‘profession’ of digital curator that DigCCurr amongst others are trying to define?

Let us rewind to say the second half of the 16th century and let us suppose that you were charged by Mr Shakespeare’s publishers with curating ‘The Scottish Play’.  What would you have done?  What exactly is this ‘information object’?  Is is the fonts, the layout, the pagination, the language, the story, the stage directions or what?  In spite of the absence of the profession of ‘paper curator’ we have inherited a rich heritage.  Along the way, many items will have been lost – it was always thus and, in spite of the optimistic techno-determinism of some, it always will be EVEN IN THE DIGITAL AGE. I would argue that this is all good and necessary and whilst I would mourn the passing of Algol, Reverse Polish Notation, amplifiers based on thermionic valves or chunky discrete solid state components, vinyl records, reel to reel tape and other really splendid ideas that were IMHO much better than the ‘mass market equivalents’ that replaced them, we have to discard much of our baggage as we move on.

So what is this preservation activity all about?  Is it not about the preservation and curation of information not of digits?  During a session with my MSc students, We visited the Way Back Machine and had a look at the University of Glasgow Web site (you wondered when I would get on to the web didn’t you?).  The page that we selected at random was from 18th October 2000. As a web page it is rather uninteresting, when I looked at it today there was no style sheet, the graphics were all missing and it was generally rather uninspiring, but ….  what is interesting is the headline news story ‘Funeral of the First Minister, Donald Dewar’. For those of you firth of Scotland, Donald was a leading light in the establishment of devolution for Scotland and the first First Minister of the devolved administration in Scotland. He was a graduate of the University of Glasgow and his premature passing at the age of 63 was tragic.  The news story is about ‘administrative’ details of his funeral and the passage of his cortege past the University – details of importance in relation to the history of the University and perhaps of Scotland.  It is the information contained in the web pages that is of interest and importance, whilst the layout of the pages and such ‘technical’ details of passing interest as the ‘container’ for that information.

So with 2008 now ended let us bury the idea that the digital needs its own ghetto that we need to prepend everything with ‘digital’, be it: curation, preservation, art, culture, revolution, etc.  Digital artifacts are the currently ‘fashionable’ containers for information and whilst the term continues, the technologies underneath that are radically different at every turn and often require as much conversion one to another as a paper to magnetic disc conversion.  It is not the containers that are important but what they contain.  The Eastern concept of ‘Pointing at the Moon’ has something to say here.

If we come to regard preservation/curation as a finger pointing to the moon; we might come to mistake the finger for the moon and never see beyond it to the moon itself.

This short clip of Bruce Lee in ‘Enter the Dragon‘ (1974) captures something of this in a different context.

I am also reminded of the auditors in Terry Pratchett’s ‘Thief of Time’ who take a great painting and break it down into flakes of paint which they put in little piles of each colour and then spend time looking to see where the art has gone!  These auditors are described in the Wikipedia article for DiscWorld thus:

The Auditors, cosmic bureaucrats who prefer a universe where electrons spin, rocks float in space and imagination is dead, represent the perils of handing yourself over to a completely materialist and deterministic vision of reality, devoid of the myths and stories that make us human.


In 2009 we need to see digital preservation and curation as ‘last year’s model’, of course we need to understand the importance of custody, metadata and identifiers, but above all we need to understand the centrality of the information in the artifacts that we are seeking to curate and preserve.  This piece is recognisably ‘Currall’ not because of a digital signature, not because it is on his web site and not because the owners of the JISC PoWR say it is – it is ‘Currall’ because of its recognisably iconoclast position, poor grammar and tortured logic – that is what needs to be preserved!

Information is the thing (even if that is hard and technology is relatively easy) – lose sight of that and the game is a bogey.

PS if you are interested in a rather more rigorous treatment of this topic you might like to access “Authenticity: a red herring? (doi:10.1016/j.jal.2008.09.004)

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