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Persistent Paleontology: How Do Stones and Bones Relate to Digital Preservation?

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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.”

Fossil Snake CT Scanning, by Houston Museum of Natural Science, on Flickr
Fossil Snake CT Scanning, by Houston Museum of Natural Science, on Flickr

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.

Consider archived web pages. Web crawlers do not capture the underlying architecture of a website, and the functionality of JavaScript and other dynamic code is hard to retain. External links are often broken, and internal links may be missing or drawn from earlier or later crawls. Images and other embedded content may also absent.

Missing image from 2007 BLM website held by the Internet Archive
Missing image from 2007 BLM website held by the Internet Archive

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.

Comments (6)

  1. Bill,

    Sounds like you’re swimming dangerously close to Plato and Wittgenstein. (Maybe “digital material culture” or “digital cultural heritage” would sound more appropriate.) Constantly reinterpreting objects thanks to continued advances in technology.

    Prior, erroneous/flawed conclusions still hold a place, because they provide insight into
    1) the time required to reach a more accurate conclusion
    2) the limitations in technology and understanding that led to earlier conclusions

    Best I can think of is early medical practices. A person has an illness, and it is misdiagnosed, and a physician gives the patient a nice healthy dose of leeches.

    With regards to digital objects, retaining the context of earlier, archaic material is problematic, because there’s this continued push towards creating some kind of alternate, man-made reality which serves as some Promethean escape, and which offers all information instantaneously–creating virtual omniscience. It’s unrealistic… (but we’re still getting there!). How do you tell that child who has a phone that produces holograms that you used to send handwritten letters and call people on a rotary phone? Maybe they can grasp it, but they can’t appreciate it.

    (Then again, I don’t think I would “appreciate” living in a cave a hunting with a spear as much as I enjoy getting a burger with fries from Five Guys.)

    • Sharad: I’ve been accused of consorting with worse than Plato and Wittgenstein, let me assure you! I do agree with you that keeping track of earlier erroneous conclusions is important, to the extent that they are captured in content streams of wider interest (such as journals). Regarding provenance, I will confess to an archival orientation that looks for solid documentation of origin and context. It’s not always possible to document this as much as some would like, and all information in any form is subject to creeping obscurity, but I see an enduring need for doing the best we can to keep context alive.

  2. Totally agree. At the same time, this topic reminded me of a few projects I worked on involving entering metadata on architecture. Over time, many of the buildings were either renovated or changed ownership, and while the name of the structure (as it was) could easily be entered in the metadata, there was a question of adding its previous and future names–for means of linking that particular image to a larger series and providing researchers with a better understanding of change over time.

    And what if some new, factual information was later discovered (i.e. the name of the building’s owners was routinely misspelled, or the name of the street had changed over time)? It’s the little things. But in the immortal words of They Might Be Giants:

    Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
    Why they changed it, I can’t say
    People just liked it better that way

  3. Thanks for the inspiring post. For clarification of my Metaphortean musing —the missing metadata in my characterization of ongoing information management as paleontological are “Foreverism” and “Forbidden Paleontology.” These concepts were cross-wired in the Metaphortean Space in hopes of yielding new insight. Foreverism being’s suggested marketing strategy of permanently generating new content and sites for client interaction. Forbidden Paleontology being the title of a non-normative science concerning excavation of ancient technological artifacts that would seem to throw conventional chronology into a tizzy.

    Forever Paleontology could be described as the “poor-person’s omniscience.” The Forever Paleontologist, hypothetical denizen of the near-future, seeks to maintain a semblance of chronology in his/her increasingly non-linear existence online. Daily routines of linking, searching and sifting provide makeshift continuity by way of pattern-recognition over time. Sentiment becomes sediment, or vice-versa, as out-of-place articles are uncovered (again), jogging one’s memory. Speculatively, Forever Paleontology is also a repressed desire to keep one’s “inboard brain” active lest evolutionary forces, in an ironic homage to the aforementioned Lucy, lobby for a reduction in the cranial quarters.

    • Carl: Thanks for your comment. I noticed that your post had the page title of “Forbidden Paleontology,” which I found intriguing, especially from a preservationist perspective. Your take on the The Forever Paleontologist is wonderful. I can only hope that somewhere Lucy is smiling.

  4. Clearing the clear-cuts!?!

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