[Humanist] 25.219 digital preservation

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Mon Aug 8 22:00:45 CEST 2011

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 25, No. 219.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Mon, 08 Aug 2011 02:22:30 -0500
        From: amsler at cs.utexas.edu
        Subject: Re: [Humanist] 25.217 digital preservation?
        In-Reply-To: <20110807205106.B704D1A17C2 at woodward.joyent.us>

The real problem is that writing done on a computer erases old drafts  
as they are revised. Authors would have to somewhat self-consciously  
save versions of their manuscripts so that future scholars will have  
intermediate knowledge of the work's revisions. Admittedly, Microsoft  
Word (and probably other editors) do retain previous edits of text  
(accessible through 'undoing' the edits) such that a *.doc file might  
be a tool for scholarly examination as digitally preserving the  
author's revisions (and typing errors); but if the file from which the  
book is printed is not preserved something could be lost. As the  
technology gets more sophisticated, and the same digital document is  
edited by multiple parties (author, proofchecker, editor, printer)  
every change might only exist in the one electronic file as opposed to  
on marked-up paper copies.

Because computer storage will continue to get cheaper and more  
voluminous as time progresses, storage cost shouldn't be a problem  
though. I believe it was Arthur C. Clarke who posited that at some  
point in the future we will all walk around with a computer that will  
record everything we say, is said to us, read, write, or see so we'll  
have complete access to our lives in its encrypted memory. It would be  
nice to imagine what it would be like if we had such a record of, say,  
Leonardo da Vinci's life as a recording---even if it was proscribed  
from viewing for 100 years after the person's death. The thing I have  
trouble with is the part about the person when they were alive  
deciding that their whole life was worthy of such a complete digital  
record. I.e., those who did think that way might not be the people we  
most want to know about; and those we most want to know about might  
shun the attention to any but their final finished works.

What is probably new is that we are likely to be flooded with the  
collective ephemeral writings of massive numbers of people. The  
Library of Congress collection of public tweets, for example. Or the  
YouTube videos of countless everyday events of people. Perhap  
somewhere in there the tweets of historic figures of tomorrow reside?  
The future will be different in that we'll be able to study whole  
societies through their ordinary population's writings. Massive text  
archives of everything everybody emailed/tweeted about the minutia of  
daily life, like when the toast fell on the floor and how they felt  
about that; but perhaps also why tomorrow's Pulitzer Prize winners  
decided to go into writing or what they thought about when writing  
their winning texts.

Will future scholars think of the era before computer recordings as we  
think of pre-history. It does seem more likely that in the future  
we'll have massive amounts of data about some people; just maybe not  
about the people we want to know about the most.

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