[Humanist] 25.930 bit rot & preservation

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Wed May 2 07:22:14 CEST 2012

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 930.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Tue, 1 May 2012 10:42:35 +0200
        From: Jonathan Gray <j.gray at cantab.net>
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.927 publications: bit rot; spectral imaging
        In-Reply-To: <20120501054715.32016280848 at woodward.joyent.us>

I agree that we should not be too hasty in thinking that archiving
everything is an unconditionally good thing. Borges and Calvino also
have nice short stories parodying this [1]. And Nietzsche writes
wonderful things about memory and forgetting in his "On the Use and
Abuse of History".

Regarding the Economist article, I think it is making a very important
point, which is that archivists are struggling to implement policies
and practises to preserve material which is of historical interest. On
the one hand this depends on what we consider to be of "historical

A few years ago I attended a seminar on digital history at the British
Library co-organised by the National Archives and the Royal Historical
Society [2]. Natalie Ceeney, then Chief Executive of the National
Archives, said that they were saving what they could, but that they
didn't really know what to save, what not to save and where to focus.
She asked for assistance from historians in the room to advise the
National Archives on what to prioritise.

The loss of up to 22 million emails from the Bush administration
(partly as many private non-governmental email accounts were used to
discuss matters of national interest) helps to put this into
perspective [3]. Some friends of mine recently started a site to
archive election leaflets, to try to track the promises of politicians
before they came into power - as apparently no-one else is
systematically doing this [4].

While archiving everything for the sake of archiving everything is
clearly questionable, much of what we now consider digital detritus
could well be transformed from dust into gold by a gifted historical
interpreter, investigative reporter, or documentary maker. In my
opinion we - qua digital humanists - shouldn't let amusing or
insightful straw men satires from the likes of Borges or Calvino
incline us (consciously or accidentally) to side with policies that
protect the short-term interests of publishers or politicians, as
opposed to the longer-term objective of preserving and opening up
material that could be of interest to historians, the media and the
general public.


[1] http://jonathangray.org/2011/08/24/on-archiving-everything-borges-calvino-google/
[2] http://blog.okfn.org/2007/11/14/gerald-aylmer-seminar-2007-digital-horizons/
[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bush_White_House_email_controversy
[4] http://www.electionleaflets.org/

Jonathan Gray

On Tue, May 1, 2012 at 7:47 AM, Humanist Discussion Group
<willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk> wrote:
>                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 927.
>            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
>                       www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist
>                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org
>  [1]   From:    Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>          (25)
>        Subject: bit rot
>  [2]   From:    "Adrian S. Wisnicki" <awisnicki at yahoo.com>                (79)
>        Subject: Publications from the David Livingstone Spectral Imaging
>                Project
> --[1]------------------------------------------------------------------------
>        Date: Mon, 30 Apr 2012 14:31:29 +0100
>        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
>        Subject: bit rot
> I expect that most here will be interested in an article in The
> Economist for 28 April, "Bit rot: The world is losing its ability to
> reconstruct history. Better regulation could fix that",
> www.economist.com/node/21553445. The author asks us to imagine being an
> historian of 2012 in the relatively near future of 2035.
> No surprises here. We can all accurately imagine the problems he or she
> writes about. But I persist in thinking that this is not a simple matter
> of GOOD (preservation) versus EVIL (loss of information). First there is
> the tight relationship between forgetting and sanity. Someone, I think
> the English mystic Rodney Collin (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_Collin),
> defined Hell as uncontrolled simultaneous recall of everything you've
> ever experienced. Then there's Borges' story, "Funes the Memorious"
> (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funes_the_Memorious). And (let us say) finally
> there's the need for a space to be cleared so that new people can
> discover new things and rediscover old ones.
> So, I ask you to imagine being an historian in 2035 in a world where
> absolutely nothing has been lost or forgotten.
> Comments?
> Yours,
> WM
> --
> Professor Willard McCarty, Department of Digital Humanities, King's
> College London; Professor (fractional), University of Western Sydney;
> Editor, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews (www.isr-journal.org); Editor,
> Humanist (www.digitalhumanities.org/humanist/); www.mccarty.org.uk/

More information about the Humanist mailing list