“Digital Culture is Mass Culture”: An interview with Digital Conservator Dragan Espenschied

Dragan cc-by, Flo Köhler

Dragan Espenschied, Digital Conservator @ Rhizome cc-by, Flo Köhler

At the intersection of digital preservation, art conservation and folklore you can find many of Dragan Espenschied’s projects. After receiving feedback and input from Dragan for a recent post on interfaces to digital collections and geocities I heard that he is now stepping into the role of digital conservator at Rhizome. To that end, I’m excited to talk with him as part of our ongoing NDSA innovation group’s Insights interview series about some of his projects and perspectives and his new role as a digital conservator.

Trevor: When I asked you to review the post on some of your work with the Geocities data set, you responded “I agree, archivists should act dumb and take as much as possible, leaving open as many (unforeseeable) opportunities as possible for access design.” Now that you are moving into a role as a digital conservator, I would be curious to hear to what extent you think that perspective might animate and inform your work.

Dragan: I believe that developing criteria of relevance and even selecting what artifacts are allowed into archives poses a problem of scale. The wise choice might be not trying to solve this problem, but to work on techniques for capturing artifacts as a whole – without trying to define significant properties, what the “core” of an artifact might be, or making too many assumptions about the future use of the artifact. The fewer choices are made during archiving, the more choices are open later, when the artifact will be accessed.

While at Rhizome I want to focus on designing how access to legacy data and systems located in an archive can be designed in a meaningful way. For Digital Culture, “access” means finding a way for a whole class of legacy artifacts to fulfill a function in contemporary Digital Culture. How to do that is one of the most pressing issues when it comes to developing an actually meaningful history of Digital Culture. We are still fixated on a very traditional storytelling, along the lines of great men creating groundbreaking innovations that changed the world. I hope I can help by turning the focus to users.

Trevor: BitTorrent has been the primary means by which the geocities archive has been published and shared. Given the recent announcement of AcademicTorrents as a potential way for sharing research data, I would be curious to hear what role you think BitTorrent can or should play in providing access to this kind of raw data.

Dragan: The torrent was an emergency solution in the Geocities case, but the Archive Team’s head Jason Scott turned the disadvantage of not having any institutional support into a powerful narrative device. Today the torrent’s files can be downloaded from The Internet Archive and this is in fact much more comfortable, though less exciting.

In general distribution via BitTorrent is problematic because once nobody is interested in a certain set of data anymore, even temporarily, a torrent dries up and simply vanishes. But torrents can help rescuing stuff trapped in an institution or distributing stuff that no institution would ever dare to touch. One of them is this big pile of Digital Folklore of Geocities, it poses so many problems for institutions: there are literally hundreds of thousands of unknown authors who could theoretically claim some copyright violations if their work would show up under the banner of an institution; there is hardly anybody in charge who would recognize the immense cultural value of the digital vernacular; it is so much material that no-one could ever look inside and check each and every byte for “offensive content” and so forth …

Trevor: In my earlier post on digital interfaces I had called the website One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age, which you artist Olia Lialina run, an interpretation. You said you think of it as “a carefully designed mass re-enactment, based on this scale of authenticity/accessibility.” Could you unpack that for us a bit? What makes it a re-enactment and what do you see as the core claim in your approach to authenticity and accessibility?

Dragan: As much as Digital Culture is Mass Culture, it is also more about practices than objects. In order for artifacts to survive culturally, they need to become useful again in contemporary digital culture. Since, at the moment, “content” that is isolated, de-contextualized and shuffled around in databases of social networking sites is the main form of communication, to be useful an artifact has to work as a “post,” it has to become impartible and be brought into a format that is accepted everywhere. And that is a screenshot.

I have a great setup with emulators and proxy servers and whatnot to access the processed Geocities archive, but this won’t bring it anywhere close to executing its important cultural role, being a testimony of a pre-industrialized web. Even public archives like the rather excellent ReoCities or the Wayback Machine cannot serve as a mediator for 1990’s web culture. The screenshots are easily accessible, sharable and usable: they work as cultural signatures users can assign to themselves by re-blogging them, they can be used to spark discussions and harvest likes and favorites, and so forth.

Some decisions of how these screenshots are automatically created are coming from this perspective of accessibility; for example, although the typical screen resolution of web users increased around the turn of the century, One Terabyte Of Kilobyte Age will continue to serve 800×600 pixel images for the foreseeable future. Larger images would burst many blogs’ layouts and cause unrecognizable elements on downsizing.

Other decisions, like the choice of MIDI replay plugin installed in the browser, is about making the screen shots as narrative as possible. The MIDI replay plugin shipped with Netscape would play MIDI music in the background without any visual representation, if the music would be embedded to the page, it would show simple play controls. The “crescendo” plugin I used always shows the file name of the MIDI file being played, most of the time in a popup window.

CapitolHill/1455/

Reenactment of CapitolHill/1455/ via One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age

On the Geocities site CapitolHill/1455/ there is a music playing called “2001.mid”. You might think this might be the title theme of the movie 2001, “Also Sprach Zarathustra” by Richard Strauss – and that’s really the case (see this recording artist Olia Lialina made). This screenshot of the – some might say – annoying, even not very “authentic” popup window makes the tune play in your head.

"Access to the remains of Geocities can be measured on two axis: authenticity (how realistic can the harvested data be presented again) and ease of access (what technical requirements and what knowledge are needed to gain access on a certain level of authenticity)." Image from Dargan.

“Access to the remains of Geocities can be measured on two axis: authenticity (how realistic can the harvested data be presented again) and ease of access (what technical requirements and what knowledge are needed to gain access on a certain level of authenticity).” Image from Dragan.

So, while the screenshots have some “authenticity issues,” this is greatly outweighed by their accessibility and therefore impact. And experiencing the iconic, graphically impressive Netscape browser is something otherwise only achievable by complicated emulator setups. (Olia observed that tumblr users also reblog screenshots of empty Netscape windows, probably because its very dominant interface looks explicitly historic today.)

Trevor: In the announcement of your new position you are quoted as saying “I strongly believe that designing the access to complex legacy digital artifacts and systems is the largest contemporary challenge in digital culture. Digital culture is mass culture, and collection and preservation practices have to change to reflect this fact.” Could you unpack that a bit more for us? What are the implications of mass digital culture for collecting and preserving it?

Dragan: The grief I have with the creation of history in digital culture is that it is in many cases located outside of digital culture itself. Digital culture is regarded as too flimsy (or the classic “ephemeral”) to take care of itself, so conservation is done by removing artifacts from the cultural tempest they originated in and putting them into a safe place. The problem is that this approach doesn’t scale – sorry for using this technical term. I won’t argue that a privileged, careful handling of certain artifacts deemed of high importance or representative value is the wrong way; actually, this approach is the most narrative. But practiced too rigidly it doesn’t do digital culture any justice. Firstly because there simply are no resources to do this with a large amount of artifacts, and secondly because many artifacts can only blossom in their environment, in concert or contrast with a vernacular web, commercial services and so forth.

The other extreme is to write history with databases, pie charts and timelines, like in Google’s Zeitgeist. Going there I can find out that in January 2013 the top search requests in my city were “silvester” and “kalender 2013” – big data, little narration. With the presentation of such decontextualized data points, the main narrative power lies in the design of the visual template they end up in. This year it is a world map, next year it might be a 3D timeline – but in fact users typed in their queries into the Google search box. That is why the popular Google Search autocomplete screen shots, as a part of digital folklore, are more powerful, and typing into the Google search box yourself and watching the suggestions appear is the best way to explore what is being searched for.

Example of Autocomplete screenshot provided by Dragan.

Example of Autocomplete screenshot provided by Dragan.

Mass Digital Culture is posing this challenge: can there be a way of writing its history that does it justice? How to cope with the mass without cynicism and with respect for the users, without resorting to methods of market analysis?

Trevor: I spoke with Ben Fino-Radin, your predecessor in this role, about Rhizome and his take on what being a digital conservator means. I’d be curious to hear your response to that question. Could you tell us a bit about how you define this role? To what extent do you think this role is similar and different to analog art conservation? Similarly, to what extent is this work similar or different to roles like digital archivist or digital curator?

Dragan: I have very little experience with conserving analog art in general so I will spare myself the embarrassment of comparing. The point I agree whole-heartedly with Ben is about empathy for the artifacts. “New Media” is always new because the symbols buzzing around in computers don’t have any meaning by themselves, and digital culture is about inventing meanings for them. A digital conservator will need to weave the past into the present and constantly find new ways of doing so. This touches knowledge of history, curation, and artistic techniques. While I believe the field of digital conservation needs to build an identity still, I see my personal role as ultimately developing methods and practices for communities to take care of their own history.

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