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.