DH: Evolution-Extinction

(repost from http://ryan.cordells.us/s13dh/blog/ for Ryan Cordell’s Doing the Digital Humanities class at Northeastern University)

A lot of talk (in class, over Twitter, in the Around DH Google Doc, and in recent blog posts) has been the issue of the shelf life of digital projects—or “arsenals” as Price would have it. Is it okay for digital projects to have a finite end date? Or should we expect continuous updates and maintenance? Particular to Around DH, is it okay to choose projects that are “completed” or that haven’t been updated recently? Or should we only highlight current and active projects?

Another series of similar questions concerns the Around DH project itself.  Does this project have a shelf life? Will this have its 80 days, then a full platform exploring these 80 days in detail, but without additional posts? After the eighty days will it stop being updated like the September 11th Digital Archive that Rosenzweig and Cohen refer to in their DH Guide?  Or will it continue to be updated? Will we have new posts integrated later? Perhaps a new Around DH in 80 days each year? These are some questions we will need to address early, particularly so that we can incorporate what is necessary into the content and design stages in our project.

Cohen and Rosenzweig’s introduction brings up five hazards of doing the digital humanities: quality, durability, readability, passivity, and inaccessibility. I think this question of the temporal life of DH projects rests in the durability hazard. How long should a digital project last? And what happens when it is finished? Its not like the finished project is a book or manuscript that can be stored on a shelf in the library or in a box in an archive. How do we save full websites and digital content?

I think another really crucial issue arises here as well, which I believe represents a sixth, related but separate, hazard to doing the digital humanities. I will call it an issue of “evolution-extinction.” The digital and web-based environment is a rapidly changing medium. New methods of coding and necessary Internet plug-ins are developed each year to meet novel and unpredictable demands. What then happens when a digital project, which has stopped being updated, can no longer be read or recognized by these new mechanisms?

Think of it like a laser-disc and laser-disc player. Very few people have the means to view these. As laser-discs gave way to VHS cassettes, which gave way to DVDs, then Blue-Rays, then digital streaming and mpegs, and so on, not only have many of these laser-discs been lost or discarded, but so have the laser-disc players, and even the machines we need to convert these to more useable formats. Or even look at how digital storage has changed even from just eight years ago. I remember still using floppy discs to save and transport my high school projects. As we have utilized USB drive and platforms such as Google Drive, floppy discs have become obsolete. Today you would have to search hard for a computer that could read its information—that is if the information even survived on the disc that long without deteriorating.

Now apply this to a digital project that is hosted under a particular domain name. If it is not updated, we run the risk of not being able to even view the information that it had been posted or supplied. And if we cannot read the material in a web platform, how do we preserve it? That is why I consider it an issue of evolution-extinction. As digital technologies and the digital environment change, so to must the DH projects, or at least the means to view and utilize their information, evolve. If not, they run the risk of extinction—or permanently disappearing from digital record. These websites are not physical entities, but rather are tied to complex interpreting mechanisms and technologies tied to the web.

I guess this then brings up the question of how do we preserve digital projects? Do we print out facsimiles of all its content and store them traditionally? Then what is the point of it being a digital project to begin with? Or do we save the page’s coding (HTML, SGML, XML, or some other variant) somewhere else? But then we also need to save the mechanisms by which we can read and interpret the page’s coding. How do we do that and where do we store it? Do we store in the updated digital space? Or do we maintain non-updated digital hardware and software precisely to read the information? Or do we take it upon ourselves to adapt the previous coding to conform to newer technologies?

To this point, I have used the generic term “we” when proposing these hypothetical questions concerning the preservation and adaptation of digital projects, but who is this “we?” Whose responsibility is it to preserve, maintain, or adapt digital projects? Is it the creator’s? Is it the programmer’s? Or is it the interested viewer’s? Besides the question on how we preserve digital projects we are still left with this question of who. Some people might assume it’s the creator’s or the programmer’s responsibility to constantly update the digital project, but is this a realistic expectation? Digital projects do require funding to operate and continue. Moreover, the creators or programmers of digital projects begin new projects after, and often before, the completion of a previous one.

Consider this example: one professor decides work on a monograph whereas another professor in a similar field decides to collaborate and create a digital project. Let’s say that the first professor takes ten years to fully research, write, edit, and publish their monograph. After this book is over, what is expected of this professor? They are expected to begin brainstorming and working towards another, or at the very least a few scholarly journal articles. What of the professor working on the digital project? Let us say that they also take ten years conceptualizing, researching, collecting material for, working on coding and initial operation, editing, updating, and expanding their project. After ten years, do we not expect this professor to begin working on another project—printed or digital? Why then can we rationalize the professor releasing the monograph to leave their book as is and work on their next one, while expecting the second professor to simultaneously work on a new project and continue to maintain and update their previous one?

I certainly do not think this is fair to hold digital projects at a different standard in this regard. But who then is responsible for preserving or updating these projects? I think that is the vital question we need to be addressing today. Not only do we need to come up with methods for preservation, we need to have people interested in actually doing the preserving. I think this is where digital projects must have faith in the interested viewer. When a project reaches a terminal period, it is up to the interested viewer to make sure that the information does not disappear. It is the viewer who must make sure that at least the content of the site does not fade from digital memory. As Cohen and Rosenzweig say when describing the advantages to doing digital humanities, the digital format is flexible, malleable, and interactive. I feel it is precisely these qualities that may help to solve these issues of “evolution-extinction” and preservation.

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