Impermanence and archives in the information era

I have been thinking a lot lately about the ideas of impermanence, flexibility, retention, and change. Apart from the aesthetics or poetics of impermanence, it does in a very real sense pose problems to a digital record. We have access to more voices, more information, more possibilities than ever before, yet in some ways we have less. As projects and web spaces necessarily evolve, history and documentation can be lost. Sometimes it is refined, but sometimes it is simply replaced.

As I began a discussion today about digital humanities resources, completion, and evolution, I realized data fragility on that level is something to return to at another time. Here, and now, the concern is on a more immediate possibility of a different kind of record loss.

The broader web and digital records pose challenges that archivists have been debating since the beginnings of the Internet—how rapid, how impermanent a space for communications and public discourse. But it is also a place for public access to many kinds of records, and none seem more important right now than government data. In an era of looming uncertainty about transparency and access to information, the preservation activities of the Internet Archive Wayback Machine seem suddenly radical.

Archivists as activists have been a topic of interest for some time, but it is often in relation to hidden histories or underrepresented communities that such discussion develops. It is a strange twist, indeed, to suddenly view government documents archivists and scientific communities as activists. But as the fear that certain politically unpopular documentation—websites, datasets, papers, reports, communications—may start to disappear, a frantic effort to collect and archive seems like just that.

Business Insider explains this in an article articulating concerns about the possibility of climate change data being wiped from both servers and web spaces.

Tech.Co similarly explains three ways scientists are frantically preserving this data.

The University of Toronto Guerrilla Archiving Event: Saving Environmental Data from Trump was initiated by faculty fearing data loss and the tamping down on access to information. The End of Term Presidential Harvest, an initiative of several university and government offices, took on a tone this year that seems more urgent, more immediate, and more important than in the past. As though data—and history—may actually be erased, not just updated or misplaced.

There are undertones not simply of the usual transience and carelessness in the management and access to information, but of malicious intent. This is put forth, forcefully, in the language of the Internet Archive’s See Something, Save Something initiative. Sure, it’s about anyone pitching in to help preserve websites and digital content, but co-opting and playing on the language of the See Something, Say Something campaign to combat terrorism through heightened public awareness is not a subtle message that the willful “disappearance” of information from public spheres is something against which people must remain vigilant.

Further, digging out and tweeting this 1946 educational film on despotism seems an unequivocal declaration that Internet Archive is watching the political and social arenas and guarding access to information for the future of an informed citizenry:

Despotism
Encyclopedia Britannica Films
1946

Archival activism is alive and more essential than ever, and the task of vigilant preservation and advocating for public spheres just became even more immediate. The message on the part of a great many groups is clear: knowledge isn’t just power, it’s a basic human right.

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