Notes from New Media and Social Memory Symposium

Following are ideas and links I jotted down during the excellent New Media and Social Memory symposium, which was hosted on January 18 by our colleagues at the UC Berkeley Art Museum. The goal of the symposium was to “discuss strategies for preserving digital art at a time when digital technologies are evolving and becoming obsolete at an astonishingly rapid pace.” The panel included leading experts in the fields of art, new media, and preservation. See program:

Looking Back

Stewart Brand, President, Long Now Foundation, (and founder of The WELL and Whole Earth Catalogue) admonishes us to look back at the history of technological change to gain some perspective on the future.

The Computer History Museum highlights rapid technological obsolescence:

One preservation strategy for early digital media projects is software emulation. Spacewar!, one of the earliest computer games, is now running on PDP-1 emulator in Java:

Digital Media Preservation Strategies
Media formats become obsolete every 10 years. Preservation Strategies for soon-to-be obsolete media include emulation, migration, and re-interpretation.

Biological Model of Preservation

Kurt Bollacker, Digital Research Director, Long Now Foundation, encourages preservationists to look to biology for models of self-preservation. He asks us to consider how the dna of a flower is preserved through mobility, distribution, and diversity.

What’s Worth Saving?

Kevin Kelly, Editor, Cool Tools and Wired Magazine, notes how many time capsules have been lost. More importantly, most of what previous generations thought was worth preserving turns out to be pretty uninteresting. Landfills consistently preserve some of the most the interesting stuff. Are we always going to save the wrong things?

Tim O’Reilly reads books that were best sellers 100 years ago and are now no longer.

We can’t trust librarians, museum curators, or other “experts” to decide what’s worth saving.

How many people keep all their email and don’t throw anything away? Kevin Kelly predicts that this will soon become common practice for the rest of our digital products and communications.

On the Future
When everything is publicly available and easily preserved, people, especially digital media artists, will increasingly value private, ephemeral experiences, such as an ice statue at a dinner party or a one-time digital media performance.

William Gibson’s Agrippa poem and Dennis Ashbrough’s accompanying paintings were designed to self-destruct upon viewing. Of course, they are both well preserved:

On Memory
Remember that there is sometimes an upside to forgetting.

Masters and Masterworks
George Lucas re-released Star Wars with advanced special effects to better reflect his original intent. Pixar features are released for dozens of media formats and audiences. Which is the original?

Art (and culture) is iterative and cumulative. Everything is a remix.

Impact of Lawsuits
Some institutions delete digital archives for fear of lawsuits (e.g., email cache on servers).
Some institutions save digital archives anticipating lawsuits (e.g., prior art for patent infringements).

Answers Are Cheap
In an age of Google, where answers are cheap, good questions become more valuable.

Don’t Forget the Metadata
Alexander Rose, Executive Director, Long Now Foundation, shared his experience visiting the Mormon Granite Mountain Record Vault in Cottonwood Canyon, Utah. Housed in a bunker behind 14-ton blastproof doors, the genealogical data (stored in microfiche format) is intended to survive for 1000 years. Unfortunately, the index for all of these zillions of records is located outside the vault in an Oracle database!

Preservation Outside the Vault
Some of the oldest surviving art may be cultural performances such as Aboriginal Songlines:

On Controlled Vocabularies
Vocabularies and classification schemes are subject to change. According to legend, animals in China were once grouped into those that belonged to the Emperor and all the rest:

Controlled vocabularies are popularity contests that marginalize fringe and emerging terminologies. New media art will continually force curators, librarians and audiences to reexamine and redefine their vocabularies.

Renewing the Erl King

Computer Scientist Jeff Rothenberg shared experiences renewing Roberta Friedman and Grahame Weinbren’s mid-1980s interactive video artwork The Erl King, which was in danger of being lost to technological obsolescence.

Preservation Resources
The variable media paradigm encourages artists to define their work independently from medium so that the work can be translated once its current medium is obsolete. Variable media network:

Long Now Format Exchange provides a clearinghouse for file format conversions:

The Rosetta Project does same for languages:

A Score for Digital Art
Richard Rinehart, Digital Media Director, Berkeley Art Museum, is working on a Media Art Notation System that will aid in the reperfomance of digital art.

The Unreliable Archivist:


2 Responses to Notes from New Media and Social Memory Symposium

  1. They have now put much of the content of this symposium on-line including videos of the presentations. Unfortunately the video I have seen so far (conversations, panels) are just talking heads, no view of the screen; so you might as well download just the audio (usually an option):

  2. Actually as I was downloading the audio from the Social Memory symposium, I started to explore the whole site of “Archiving the Avant-Garde”. It’s very interesting and worth discussing. There are a number of articles that have been written in connection with the project, but also complete audio record (again they never show the screen so there’s no point in downloading the video) of the symposium in November 12 on Preserving Digital and Variable Media Art

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