Flat Archives

An abstract I’ve submitted for the upcoming DRHA conference in the UK:

Flat Archives: Or Promiscuity Unbound

A key research problem within the digital humanities has been the digitisation of artefacts contained within existing archives. While much of this research has concentrated on the formal problems of metadata and standards, the rationale for these projects has largely been about access to collections. Their success in this has been mixed, at best. On the other hand we now find ourselves with enormous online systems that, by indifferent stealth, are archive like. These systems, which operate and present themselves primarily as service orientated platforms (for example Flickr, YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, and more formalised services such as Storify, Cowbird, and Storehouse), appear to be exemplary in relation to access. These platforms enable, facilitate, keep, store, index, transcode, tag, geotag, classify, and algorithmically engage with formal and informal metadata that is attached to the specific media artefacts that we now create and leave as soft, evidentiary trails of our everyday experience. However, unlike archives, these services at first blush appear to be more concerned about standards of exchange and communication than provenance and preservation.

In general, it could be argued that digital archives don’t, in spite of their best intentions, achieve the exchange of communicative promiscuity and these media artefact streams, while these services pay little, if any, heed to the standards and material culture championed by archives. This difference is cultural, material, and technological.
This communicative promiscuity is enabled by the high level of facetted granularity that these media–centric services provide. This simply means that the objects that constitute the media of these services is structured and presented in ways that expose as many possible ways to address these objects as possible (including search, annotation, curation, sharing, and description). This includes not only what is known as facetted search but also the use of public APIs that let other, unexpected questions and uses of these media artefacts be made.

This could be in contrast to the model and experience of digital archives, for here it can be argued that while digitisation of material artefacts appears to bring things ‘closer’ to us they simultaneously retreat as our ersatz copies —that, for most of us most of the time, do just fine — have now become quantified and constrained through our digital standards and in doing so see a narrowing of the ways to address these objects as a consequence of these very standards. Unlike the demonstrated willingness of new media platforms to expose ever more ways of addressing things in these media services, the multiplicity of possible attributes that objects within an archive have (the weight of a page, the grain of the timber of a tool, the number, density and type of coffee and tea stains upon a manuscript), are now unavailable because this multiplicity cannot be accounted for in advance by any system of encoding. This is, perhaps, the unreasonable advantage of ‘born digital’ artefact and practice.

The Circus Oz Living Archive is a project that straddles this difference between the digital archive and media specific social platforms. Placing itself at this intersection the project offers interesting propositions and provocations for considering digital archival practice and their relation to more recent network specific ‘media archival’ forms. These provocations include the development of what I characterise as a ‘flat’ ontology (Bogost) within the Living Archive that is the digital instantiation of the same flat ontology that lies within all archives. From this claim we can then see that archival objects gain significance by virtue of the external relations they are able to be placed within, and therefore a key role for a living digital archive is to enable, facilitate, model, and perform these external relational practices. This presentation intends to use the Circus Oz Living Archive as a case study to consider these questions of ‘flat’ ontology and ‘archival relations’ to develop speculative questions about the critical application of networked technologies to cultural objects for future work.

Bogost, Ian. Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing. Minneapolis: University Press of Minnesota, 2012. Print.