Amber Case coined the term persistent paleontologyin reference to electronic systems that continuously layer on new information. “The e-mail inbox is a rapidly expanding site of excavation which one must continually query,” she writes. “The newness of everything buries one’s ability to reach it without digging.”
I like this association because it lets us look at digital preservation from a different angle. We strive, for example, to keep artifacts along with provenance details about where they come from and how they were found–metadata as archeological grid, if you will. The contextualized relationship among digital objects is important to document, as that provides unique evidence of creation and use, much as the layers of a fossil bed tell a story larger than the sum of its artifacts.
A notion of paleontology also gets to the unavoidable fact that, hard as we try to prevent it, time has a habit of “fossilizing” digital content. It turns into a set of remains that lack the full set of known circumstances–not to mention the original software, interface, game controller or other mediators–that defined the full blush of digital life. A fossil can be highly detailed and very useful, but at best it is a representation of something that lived in the past.
A longer-term issue is retaining understanding about the original context of older digital information. An archived copy of the 2007 U.S. Bureau of Land Management Cultural and Fossil Resources website contains details about program activities, advisory councils, data use and more. Some of this information was more easily understandable then than now, as the policies and leadership of the agency have changed. Even the name is different: the current page is titled “Heritage Resources.” Over time, representation information needed to understand the archived content may fade, particularly in connection with the issues noted above.
Paleontologists interpret objects obscured in the Earth; digital preservationists work with information buried within more information. Case credits Metaphortean Space for hitting on this insight. “Forever publishing images, forever tracking, being found, and being present all the time with no end, information piles up, burying yesterday’s findings incessantly.” The author also sees evidence of digital material quickly going archaic, in spite of–and perhaps due to–it’s networked ubiquity: “The apparitions now wandering about in the landscape of of our distributed minds are searching for material memories, geospatial fossils.”
There’s more about alien visitors, Magritte and “tech support for failed utopias,” but I’m still trying to work those bits out.
In any event, it’s interesting to wonder if our constant generation of new content is putting down layer upon layer of info-fill that hinders our ability to remember, find and make sense of older content–even yesterday’s.
Here’s the part where you can either detect the hard glint of irony or see the bright side. Paleontologists have extracted an amazing amount of information based on just a handful of remains from our hominid ancestors, such as Lucy, an Australopithecus afarensis from 3.2 million years ago. But, while waiting in the ground for millennia, Lucy did not require metadata, backup, migration, emulation, the attention of a designated community or any other of the enduring requirements needed to sustain digital files.
Personally, I retain faith in human resourcefulness and ingenuity. Those who come after us will excavate digital fossils with success and gusto.