Composting the Archives: The Case for Digital Decay


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Presentation given at the 4S Annual Meeting, Vancouver, November 2, 2006.

In library and archiving circles concerns are often raised about "digital decay." This phrase is meant to convey the notion that digital preservation technologies, which seem to promise a final escape from physicality and its inevitable degradation, are actually far more susceptible to physical breakdown and obsolescence than the paper-based technologies they have replaced. Moreover, the ability to store far more information than ever before has allowed us to postpone decisions about what is worth preserving, with the result that we have substituted mass storage for selective archiving. Thus decay at the physical level is amplified by the metaphorical decay of our systems for organization and classification. The usual responses to the specter of digital decay are either rallying cries for traditional archiving technologies, or (more often) appeals for more and better digital technologies to fight decay. These responses overlook the possibility that the vulnerability of digital media to decay may turn out to be their greatest strength. Technologies of preservation have given us access to the frozen voices of those who do not know yet, but they also reinforce the hegemony of those who know by fueling their fantasies of perfect memory. Our ever- growing archives of cultural achievements threaten to overshadow contemporary works rather than providing the mulch in which they could be cultivated. What new energies might be released through the decomposition of our accumulated knowledge? Perhaps it is time to embrace forgetting and develop technologies of decay.

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Composting the Archives: The Case for Digital Decay

  1. 1. Composting the Archives The Case for Digital Decay Ryan Shaw UC Berkeley School of Information Decasia Panel, 4S Annual Meeting November 2, 2006
  2. 4. “ The truth is that computation has, from the very start, been built to rot .” “ Delete Our Cultural Heritage?” , 12/07/2004 Bruce Sterling
  3. 6. Physical storage media Operating systems Applications References between documents Classification systems Declining usage Norms and economics of use Forms of Digital Decay Computer hardware
  4. 7. The Case Against Decay <ul><li>Stabilization , preservation and conservation are the traditional goals of the archivist </li></ul><ul><li>Such goals imply a constant battle against decay </li></ul><ul><li>But the deluge of digital information available for archiving is making this battle unwinnable </li></ul>
  5. 8. The Case For Decay <ul><li>Decay as a strategy for forgetting </li></ul><ul><li>Decay as a dynamic process </li></ul><ul><li>Decay as a generator of new creative energy </li></ul>
  6. 9. “ To tell someone their record is gone is essentially to lie to them. In an electronic age, people should understand that once they have been convicted or arrested that will never go away .” “ Expunged Criminal Records Live to Tell Tales,” New York Times , 10/17/2006 Lawyer Lida Rodriguez-Taseff
  7. 10. “ What can be more inconsiderate or unjust than to compare a few existing Writers with the whole succession of their Progenitors?” William Wordsworth “ Reply to 'Mathetes',” The Prose Works of William Wordsworth , 1974
  8. 11. Seligmann & Bugaj, “Live Web stationery: virtual paper aging,” 1997
  9. 12. Tsukada, Takabayashi, & Matsui, “Dying Link,” 2003
  10. 13. “ ...we must aspire to turn media into dust —to make it as abundant and ephemeral as newspaper clippings...” “ Let us grind them into dust! The new aesthetics of digital archives,” 2005 Matt Locke
  11. 15. Toward New Forms of Decay <ul><li>Reversed decay </li></ul><ul><li>Spatial decay </li></ul><ul><li>Collaborative decay </li></ul>