Paula Keogh
Paula Keogh 13 December 2016

Toy Story and the Invisible Destruction of Cultural Heritage

Technological advances have changed our world at an increasing pace since the Industrial Revolution - yet it is within the last ten years or so that technology itself has changed the very way people actually perceive and act upon events.

In the developed world, TV, radio, social media, newspapers, books, phones, blogs, vlogs, emails, live video streaming, and photographs have come to constitute a massive and rapidly growing collection of digital evidence, not only of events themselves, but of the reactions of media consumers to these events and materials.  

Recently, while he was presenting the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi with a digital replica of a section of a priceless copy of the Koran, the Prince of Wales cautioned "so much of mankind's cultural heritage is being deliberately destroyed or threatened". We have heard of the deeply saddening news of utterly unique buildings, several centuries old, being destroyed in the blink of an eye during the Syrian conflict as was seen in the ancient city of Palmyra. It is clear that people have always understood the value in protecting physical assets of cultural significance. This is of course a never-ending challenge. There are some amazing efforts being made to save these universally precious cultural artefacts - this article from late last year tells of the heroic ‘Monuments Men’ saving hundreds of artefacts from certain destruction.

However, in the digital space we may be sleepwalking into a situation where our digital heritage fails to be attributed the same value as physical items. Taking one recent event, the American presidential election has prompted many in the archives and cultural heritage space to consider how people will study these events in the future. How will they navigate through the plethora of information sources to research these significant events and unpick the manner in which they unfolded? More importantly, what will they actually have at their fingertips to look back on virtually?

Digital legacy

In today’s digital world where non-physical assets are being created in their billions on a daily basis, are we unwittingly allowing data that is arguably just as valuable as these ancient artefacts to slip through our fingers as well? While of course most of these assets are not individually of value, how much of the deluge of information that we encounter on a daily basis will remain intact for future generations to reflect upon? Archivists are quite rightly concerned about the destruction of this rich source of data. We can see a tipping point in the near future when even organisations who are heavily rooted in the production of physical artefacts, such as sculpture and the arts, archeology and architecture, will have more digital assets to preserve than physical. The widely publicised comments from Google VP, Vint Cerf who said in 2015; “we are nonchalantly throwing all of our data into what could become an information black hole without realising it” starkly outlines a very real possibility of what he calls the “forgotten century”.

We know of several high-profile data loss stories from organisations whose business it should be to secure their digital data, since these organisations produce digital content which is not only the very lifeblood of their business but their reason for being. Take Pixar, for example, which nearly lost the entire film ‘Toy Story 2’ because it underestimated the ease with which you can lose digital data. The film was literally deleting before their eyes. This 2 minute video from the animation studio Directors is definitely worth a watch.

So what about all the ephemera? The digital data that is not understood to be as valuable as the next Pixar blockbuster and therefore is at even higher risk of being forgotten about and worse still, lost. How will future generations know how people feel about these global events if they are putting it in Facebook statuses, tweets and WhatsApp groups instead of writing them down in letters and diaries? How will you understand the history of your own organisation and the digital data you create and curate if you are not sure that it is adequately safeguarded?

What are we doing wrong? Nothing…

So, what catastrophic event will lead to the critical loss of irreplaceable digital data representing the last few decades of volatile political and cultural history, and also that of the organisations and institutions we care about? The critical event that will materially affect what our future researchers, future employees, have at their fingertips? That event is the act of doing nothing. Doing nothing is what we are doing wrong.

Keep calm and get on with it!

As our CTO, Dr Matthew Addis is often heard saying: “With digital preservation the worst thing you can do is nothing”. In fact he gave a presentation on this very subject at the Archives and Records Association 2016 Conference, where Matthew talked about how preservation can be done using basic tools, commodity IT infrastructure, or hosted services, and can actually deliver significant and real benefits, including making digital material more accessible and usable.

Today, all archivists and information professionals are by their very nature digital archivists.  In fact, there should be no distinction made between the importance of retaining, and making accessible over the long-term, both physical and digital assets. Museums such as TATE and MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York are leading the way, but even the smallest heritage organisation can get started. Arkivum have created a short ebook to help people get on the digital preservation ladder. By starting small, you can ensure your organisation is not unwittingly losing access to digital data and making sure you preserve the historical digital landscape for generations to come.

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