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Digital Preservation’s Wicked Problems – An Interview With Megan Winget

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As part of the recent meeting, DigitalPreservation 2012, there was a very lively panel session on the subject of “Preserving Digital Culture”.  Among the representatives on the panel was Megan Winget, Assistant Professor, School of Information, University of Texas at Austin.  Megan’s talk, “The Wicked Problem of New Media Preservation”  illustrated the complexities of preserving performance art and multi media cultural materials.  (The term “wicked problem” really took hold among those at the conference and many adopted that descriptive term throughout the rest of the meeting.)

I recently spoke with Megan about her presentation and her work in general.

Within the realm of digital materials, how did you come to specialize in this area?
I have a degree in Art History, my specialty was Italian Renaissance.  I eventually went back to school to become a rare book librarian, thinking because I had a background working with precious objects, I had the languages, and thought this would give me a chance to use those skills.  Eventually I realized it would be valuable to focus on the digital realm, since this was the wave of the future (in the late 90s) so I switched over to the information science track at UNC.  But I have a deep knowledge of cultural heritage in general – I’ve worked in museums, and with music, dance and theater, – and this, combined with technology experience, led me into the world of digital culture.

In your presentation, you stated that problems are not well defined for new media preservation, in that we can’t tell when it’s “done”.  Could you elaborate on that?
I recently read a piece in the New Yorker by Atul Gawande, called “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” where he defined wicked problems in terms of health care reform. The term “wicked problem” originated in the 1970s by researchers who were studying big social issues such as obesity, highway placement, and poverty.  They characterized these problems in three ways.  One; they are “messy” without a stopping point, in contrast to, say, trying to put a man on the moon.  Once the man is on the moon, end of problem.  But a problem like obesity is an amalgam of lots of different problems coming together.

Secondly, there are often differing viewpoints about how to approach these kinds of problems, which means there is not always one “correct” way to think about something.  The final characterization is based on a study from the mid 90s, by the economist Albert Hirschman, who looked at the ways people argue against major societal reform such as freedom of speech, religion, and other major issues.  He called this the “rhetoric of intransigence.” Very generally, there are three ways in which people oppose solutions to wicked problems: 1) that trying to fix the problem will itself make the problem worse (he called this the language of “perversity”); 2) the solution will be unlikely to make any real difference, so it’s not worth trying in the first place (termed the “futility” argument); and 3) the consequences of the solution will lead to unacceptably higher and higher future costs so that future losses will outstrip the expected benefits (this is the “jeopardy” criticism). This kind of rhetoric reminded me of how we often approach the complexities of new media preservation.

While reading the New Yorker article, I realized this is how people approach digital preservation’s difficulties – I hear people saying that dealing with preservation will “break the library system”, and “where would it stop,” and “what would happen to the way society works,” and so forth. That’s why I thought this 70s era “wicked problem” was a good model to use to describe the problem of digital preservation.

In your talk, you cited Merce Cunningham’s “Loops” project as a good example of a preservation challenge for new media.  Tell us about the project, and goals for preservation.

Loops image, from Megan's slide presentation

This was a piece created by the legendary dancer/choreographer Merce Cunningham.  In the original dance, sensors were attached to Cunningham’s hands, while he was performing, and this information was used to create an artificial intelligence program.   This essentially gave each sensor a mind of its own, and the sensor data points were referred to as “creatures.” Algorithms were created to allow these “creatures” to interact with each other in new ways, while following the same basic patterns that Cunningham used in performance. In addition, there was a musical score by John Cage accompanying the dance which would “loop” (or repeat) every 15 minutes.  Since the dance itself was only 12 minutes, this meant each repetition was always a bit different.  And, with the AI involved, each sensor could make its own “decisions” about what to do, meaning it constantly evolved.  Adding another layer of complexity, there were also people in the room adding data in real time.

So, because of these many facets and elements of chance, this created a monumental digital preservation problem.  What happens if the sensors go bad? What happens if you need to re-write the AI because of new input? How do you re-write it to stay true to the original performance piece?  And how do you exhibit this in the end? Should you exhibit with the “old” technology of 2001, the year the piece was created?

The “Open Ended Group” then created a definitive, 12-minute version of the piece.  But, it doesn’t ever change (in contrast to the original, which changed every moment of every performance).

Sometimes, it’s valuable to find out why something doesn’t work.  Why did you describe the outcome of this as a “preservation fail”?
Because only one version of the work was replicated – but that’s not how the work was intended.  I say it’s a fail, because that’s not even close to what’s interesting about the work!  They took this piece, with its constantly evolving nature, and turned it into something static.

Tell us about the “Listening Post” project.
This was a project from the late 90s, by Mark Hansen (a statistician) and Ben Rubin (a new media artist).  The piece is an installation, where Hansen and Rubin took conversations from chat rooms in real time, then displayed those conversations across something like 150 bespoke video screens with the words running across the screens, in addition to voices speaking the words. This is a significant piece; it won a lot of awards.

It also has big preservation challenges – what if people no longer talk on open networks anymore, where will you get your data? What happens with all the little screens, how do you preserve those, what if the protocols change and you have to re-write the programs?  A million potential problems.  One solution is, maybe you could just record a day of the internet, and just play that over and over again. Here again, the same thing happens as with the “Loops” project – you lose the immediacy of it being in real time, with real people talking about things at this very moment.  But these are the kinds of problems I think are really interesting.

Tell us how these “wicked problems” can also apply to social media, such as twitter, pinterest, and others.
It’s hard to put these things into original context.  What kinds of elements do you capture to accurately represent what the original was?

From Megan's slide presentation

It comes down to “what is the thing that we are trying to preserve?”  If you have something like polyvore, where people are making collages out of magazine content, what is the thing you are preserving?  Would it be the software that people download to be able to produce these, would it be the actual collages, what about the comments – what constitutes the “thing”?  The same holds true for other social media – what is it you are trying to preserve?  What context do you put it in, why are people looking at it?

We have to know how to define what it is we are preserving, before we can preserve it.

Could you tell us about any upcoming research projects related to preservation?
I’m currently studying the question of trying to precisely define what constitutes a “work” in the new media, specifically participatory media (those artifacts that require user participation to exist). In addition, we are looking at institutions that want to include participatory content, and what makes such content really successful.  For example, at the Metropolitan Museum they have “My Met” where the public can create their own collections.  How do you make these kinds of programs successful, and something the public wants to engage with?  We want to look at examples of existing programs, find out what works, and come up with recommendations to help museums with these programs in the future.


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