Archive as Dumpster @ CCA 2012 – Waterloo

Disclaimer – below is a pretty rough draft of my Archive as Dumpster paper, presented May 30th at CCA 2012, Waterloo. Because I was reading this paper, I don’t have the proper referencing – but contact me if you want ’em!

The Archive as Dumpster

In Le goût de l’archive, Arlette Farge, explains that “the archival operation first of all consists of separating the documents. The question is to know what to keep and what to abandon.” The decision of what to keep, which is partially accomplished through acquisition, as a first level filter, and appraisal, as a second filter, have become core archival functions because they enact value by sorting out what is worth keeping based first and foremost on perceived long-term historical potential. Undoubtedly, in traditional archives, these decisions are necessary given the limited space of the physical repository, as well as the costs of conservation—to protect artefacts against rapid deterioration based on environmental, human, and technological factors.

As such, despite decades of archival theory upon which to build, the archive is made increasingly difficult to critically engage with on common grounds—between scholars, activists, archivists, programmers, artists, etc—given that its definition now includes, as layers, the physical repository, the web, the internet archive, the database—what Appadurai might define as an anthropological or living archive—from .tar and .zip file extensions, to the so-called dump file. The dump file, also known as the “core dump” or “memory dump,” has become computer jargon to indicate the storing of a large amount of raw data for future examination. The online archive, the archive as dump, or as I prefer, dumpster, calls into attention not just the media that host and are created to preserve its contents, but also the blurry connotations of digital value. Through Vibrant Matters, Jane Bennet argues that:

There is definitely something afoot, something about everyday (euro-american) life that is warning us to pay more attention to what we’re doing.  There is the call from our garbage: our private and public spaces — houses, apartments, streets, landfills, waterways — are filling up with junk, with vast quantities of disposables, plastic artifacts, old tv’s and devices, clothes, bags, papers, bottles, bottles, bottles.

It’s no stretch, then, to also extend Bennet’s insights to practices of digital hoarding—both personal and those facilitated by technology, which together raise questions of pollution, contamination, and digital detritus, generally subsumed under the idea of the ‘viral’ proliferation of data.

The archive, then, when configured as computerized database and repository, also relies on storage space for containing as well as organizing its contents. However, while the capacity of media storage has increased rapidly and exponentially; from the punch card to analogue to digital to solid state to cloud ‘space,’ the capacity and manner of storage is now largely understood to be ever-expandable, to the point where many argue that the online archive inherently solves the issue of appraisal (and therefore, value) by allowing that no digital artefact be thrown away, discarded, or deleted.

The prevailing idea has been in the possibility (and excitement) of collecting ‘everything’—with little attention directed toward the traditional assessments of long-term value—and this is as true for organised initiatives such as the IWM, as it is for personal collections growing through social media. Unlike the conventional archive where storage limitations impact archival processes, however, the rubric of the online archive has been totalizing. As counterpoint, Sven Spieker suggests that, “Archives are less concerned with memory than with the necessity to discard, erase, eliminate.” Archival selection is always already an ongoing process, shaped by the technologies in place that facilitate storage first, and access to content second. However, due to the lack of triage online—a ranking of priorities—the web, as a whole, bypasses the archivist’s appraisal, which then usurps traditional notions of value that derive from a familiar or traditional workflow: fixity, provenance, scarcity, authenticity and integrity are no longer valid base concepts. Put simply, archival theory, its workflow, and its politics are interconnected—and without one, nothing and everything may be of value, as value—regardless of its shifting definition and scope—is the underlying motivation for archival preservation.

The idea of digital value has been taken on by scholarly practitioners such as the Digital Methods Initiative, in Amsterdam, who, among other projects, created the website deletefrominternet.com, inviting people to nominate websites “unworthy of the Internet” for deletion, to help “clean up the Web”. Through its anti-social bookmarking service, the project attempts a discursive democratization of appraisal, where the inherent and predictable failure to achieve this goal becomes in itself their most important commentary about web culture.

Another project in this vein, by Les liens invisibles, is the online Musée des ordures which addresses the “the daily overproduction of user generated content and the continuous political solicitation to which we are subjected,” for which they deem it has become “ever more difficult to make sense of the sheer number of objects circulating on the internet” (http://www.ordure.org ). This project has been more difficult to track– they were banned from one of the social networks they were using as both case and tool—their Twitter account has been suspended. They explain their project as such:

Ordure is an ever present shadow signifying to all that is deemed unworthy. Unwanted, discarded debris induces choking urbanisations, smearing land and urban scapes alike. It thrives in the sway of the brutalising exploitation of natural materials and processes usually dealt with elsewhere, (where labour markets are cheap). The interchange is filled with abrasions, natural disasters, and human sacrifices. The world as a rubbish dump. Aesthetics profits from such profligacy.

Similarly, but with a more pragmatic end goal than showcasing web ‘ordure’ through social media, American programmer, Justin Blinder, created Dumpster Drive as a means for Web users to recycle and repurpose each other’s digital files. Because the “drag-drop-delete process of deleting data from our computers prevents them from ever reaching others,” the project website explains, “Dumpster Drive makes your trash social within the context of your desktop, allowing you to dumpster dive through the discarded files of others.

Needless to say these projects remain more tongue-in-cheek comments on the circulation of digital ephemera, but the questions they raise remain extremely pertinent and bring us back the materiality of our bodies and the environments in which they live.

New Media scholar Erik Kluitenberg argues that collection of ephemera online becomes a challenge to the power of the system of archiving that determines the structure and discourse of historical worthiness. As he explains, distinguishing what has value (historical, economic) from that which can be discarded, more often than not shows the extent of what is not valued: “Ephemera are considered noise, irrelevant, and as a result, a large aspect of living culture is often excluded” from traditional repositories. But as Katharine Mieszkowski (2001) points out in a Salon article about ‘dumpster diving’ the web: “it’s just such banal ephemera that counts, if you have enough of it.”  For social media sites, and large-scale collaboration projects, the banal comes to constitute an important slice of web culture, the kind of daily ephemera largely bypassed by traditional archival collections precisely because of its ‘junky’ quality. As Mieszkowski also suggests, value is a matter of collection itself, and of the network or relationship between items, in a collection. This is a point also reinforced by Richard J. Cox in his exploration of personal archives generated of the web, and their growing importance in society’s conception around digital historical value. Cox suggests that “We are on the cusp of seeing a new kind of archival future, and whether this is good or bad depends on how well archivists equip citizen archivists.” Presumably, the value of the personal archive online also requires individuals to be archivist of their own lives, and hence, implies recognition of one’s worth and historical importance, within and beyond a collective. It also, to some extent, implies that the archive is built into the collective, and that such connectivity builds memories at least as much as it preserves them.

The online archive offers a multiple modes for self-appraisal and exclusion, based on an understanding of the value of the archive. However, despite the established, yet ever evolving, concepts that have founded archival value, the online realm, free of such referents, is without clear determinants of importance, worth, or usefulness. Not because content is without value, but because we (still) do not know how to collectively assign value to content online outside of a scarcity model, nor how to best organize large amounts of data within a framework that is about more than the moment of search (and hence antithetical to long term visions.) This is made most evident by the large scale ‘dumping’ of early web histories by UGC sites, such as GeoCities, Friendster, and more recently Google Video and other services, in contrast to the seemingly unassailable position of Google as a search engine, or Facebook as social media network, today.

Given the sheer amount of ephemera online, does archival value only come into play when content risks being deleted? Is archival value online an afterthought, in effect on a case-by-case basis, as a means of dealing with loss, as is it happening? Are these important questions any longer, if, as Brewster Khale (founder of the IWM) and others assert, there is no need to throw anything away? If we have endless space for storage, does this assume we have endless time archived as well?

If the average ‘life’ of a website is of (only) one hundred days, as David Womack reports, how can an archive online be seriously conceived? As media scholar Geert Lovink asks, will the elites establish safeguarded ‘islands in the Net’ where essential knowledge is stored, leaving the wired billions floating in their own data trash?” With the rapid development of web technologies, requiring constant upgrades for content management systems, and constant refreshing of content to keep social systems vibrant, and formats valid, how do networks themselves age in the living archive? Is the web archive, at least in part, also an archive if its fissures, a trail of broken links and faulty links and 404 errors, reveal the network’s ‘wear and tear’? Finally, as a large unsorted store, is the online archive, without assessment of its content, communities, and cultures of use, allegorical to the dumpster?

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Pulled in part from:

Hogan, Mél (2012) Crashing the Archive: A Research-Creation Intervention into the SAW Video Mediatheque. Research-Creation Doctorate. Concordia University.