Along with Bonnie (read her report of the conference here), I attended the Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG) Fall 2016 conference last week. I learned a lot at this conference about the technical aspects of digital preservation, both from a theoretical as well as a practical perspective.
There were a host of good presentations which provided introductions or practical guides to implementing digital preservation processes. I particularly liked Bertram Lyon’s presentation on the “The Anatomy of Digital Files,” Alison Rhonemus, Julia Kim, Morgan Mckeehan, Dianne Dietrich and Erin Faulder’s presentation on “Emulation for Everyone,” and Sam Meister’s discussion of “The Ecosystem of Digital Objects.”
However - the last day of the conference, which brought critical theory to bear on many of the assumptions and accepted practices in the world of digital preservation - was one of the most provocative and stimulating days of conference learning I’ve experienced in quite some time.
One of the most mind-blowing presentations was Dragan Espenschied’s discussion of the work of Webrecorder, which is a tool to capture “recordings” of websites. In his talk, he made a passing comment that the web is often conceived of as a bunch of URLs at which you can access content, but really the web is made up of people situated in time and space, using a specific web browser, operating system and network infrastructure. The last session of the day was a panel which included Ingrid Burrington, an artist and writer whose work centers on the physical infrastructure that supports large digital networks. In closing, Burrington remarked that we often talk about this infrastructure as invisible, which isn’t really true; it’s more that it’s hiding in plain sight.
These two comments got me thinking about the nature of invisibility, and reminded me of the adage that “what you see depends on where you stand.” So when we say something’s invisible, we’re really talking about own perceptions rather than expressing a universal fact. Perhaps, instead of saying something is invisible, we should say it is invisible to us; that we are blind to that particular thing, person or process.
These ideas of invisibility and blindness were further amplified by Elvia Arroyo-Ramirez’s talk, which Bonnie wrote about in some detail. At the heart of Arroyo-Ramirez’s presentation was the question “what processes are we willing to work through rather than around?” a question that intersected with several conversations I had over the course of the conference about the perils of outsourcing digital preservation expertise (and to a certain extent, infrastructure) to a third party. Although that course of action can seem like an attractive solution (particularly in the short term), “working around” the problems of digital preservation by subcontracting expertise almost always has debilitating effects over the long- (or even medium-) term because it removes opportunities for building local capacity. In Arroyo-Ramirez’s talk as well as several informal conversations with colleagues, I heard a strong argument for taking the time to “work through” digital preservation processes, to engage with processes, tools and ideas intentionally with an eye to building human capacity.
As we continue to work on Project Electron, these ideas of invisibility and where we apply labor are critically important. We’ve talked a lot about enabling systems integration with this project, but what are the characteristics of those integrations? Are we working towards integrations that are “invisible,” and if so, what are the implications for the humans who interact with these systems? When we talk about “seamlessness,” do we simply mean seams we don’t see or understand? What are we blinding ourselves to in the search for efficient workflows and measurable results? What kind of work are we making possible and what are we inhibiting or even prohibiting?