The ecology of longevity: the relevance of evolutionary theory for digital preservation

I finally got round to reading the full abstract for Dirk Roorda’s fantastic presentation at DH2010. Dirk’s paper was one of two focusing on Darwin which I attened during the conference. It fascinating how easy they found it to link digital humanities with natural history and biological concepts.

I have been a fan of the theoryof Information foraging by Peter Pirolli for a long time, which suggests that Humans actively seek, gather, share, and consume information to a degree unapproached by other organisms, in essence information seeking is very similar to evolutionary ecological explanations of human food foraging strategies. You hunt for the right information in the same way you hunt for the right food. I love this concept because it is so basic yet so appropriate at the same time. So yes looking at information-gathering and sense-making strategies from an evolutionary ecological perspective is great, but I had never really thought about these perspectives in terms of digital things and removing the human element.

(as an aside: is google the information foragers supermarket? That’s something to think about)

Dirk’s paper focused on the idea for the potential of Darwin’s evolutionary theory as an explanatory framework for digital survival. Suggesting that in digital technology there is a struggle of survival of the fittest going on. So New technologies are adaptations of earlier technologies and the older, less efficient, and a bit decrepit ones die out when newer technologies are stronger or better suited for their tasks. Bang. Old technology becomes extinct. Adaptations have to occur in order for the technology to survive in the environment.

Dirk emphasised that the main problem is sustainability. Sustainable economics for a digital planet- how can you ensure long term access to digital information? “survival of the fittest” -The capacity to endure in ecology, how biological system remain diverse and productive over time, therefore we should look to biological systems when considering digital sustainability because they are experts in survival.

So how can digital preservation strategies and data migration fit in an overarching evolutionary framework? If biological systems can use and retain biological characteristics, then can digital preservation systems re-use and preserve content in the same way? However just with natural selection, Dirk suggested that there is no single “best” strategy for survival of digital data. Some factors simply increase the chances of digital longevity, whereas other factors reduce these chances. There was also suggestion about sexual selection. Indicators of survival success, aka promote mating in digital terms e.g. Interoperability in archives – but you don’t just want to ‘inter-operate’ with just any old thing therefore seals of approval are required. Finally, he went on to describe how these principles could be integrated in a digital preservation system where fees are charged for storing content and providing access to it. Economic rules- users pay for their workspace – evolution can not work for free.

I loved this presentation during the conference and it was really good to read it in full today, hopefully there will be more insights made into the digital world with biological concepts, because they are pretty darn cool.

What have you done today to make you feel proud?

I knew Melissa Terras’ plenary speech was going to be good, but I wasn’t expecting it to give the reaction I experienced.  It shook me to my core.  In places I had goosebumps.  It made me immensely proud not only to be able to say I work with Mel, I work at UCL and I work in Digital Humanities.  It made me proud to hear someone so passionately describe what they believe in, what they represent. And I agreed with every single word.

You may think, I’m biased because I know and work with Mel on a daily basis. I know I am privileged.  I work with not one but two of what I consider to be the best people in the field.  Both Claire and Mel are so passionate about what they do and what they want to achieve and it is such an inspiring place to be.

I was concerned at the beginning of the digital humanities conference that I didn’t really belong here, everybody else appeared to know each other, there were so many papers that I didn’t understand, and I didn’t think there was anything displayed in the programme that truly represented the work that I do.  But it was an opportunity to get to know more about the diverse field that I am a part of, to see what else is out there. And boy is there a lot going on in DH.  Trying to digest all the information that was presented was hard going. I don’t think I will ever really understand Computer Forensics in the Archive, Linked Data, or how do to do TEI. After a couple of days, I still didn’t know if this was for me. Everyone appeared to be so comfortable with these concepts that I had only ever heard of, and nodded and smiled at, in the vain attempt of pretending to understand. There were so many intelligent presentations and questions and the prospect of standing up in front of this crowd and presenting my research was absolutely terrifying. And then the time came, Claire provided me with the best ever prep talk, as self confidence is not one of my strong points.  I stood up, and I presented to a packed lecture hall, its slightly disconcerting to see people sitting on the stairs because all the seats were already taken.  And it was fine, I was welcomed, I was embraced, and it was wonderful.  And then if I had any doubt left in me that this wasn’t for me.  Mel’s plenary happened. She took to the stage stated she was nervous. And then blew everyone away.

So, today I am proud to say; I am a member of the DH community.  I am a member of the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and we will rock you.