So, I’ve been out of the game for a while, but for over a decade, I worked at a bunch of different museums in the Twin Cities, in various departments. My favorite of those jobs was running digital collections at the Weisman Art Museum, the University of Minnesota’s plucky punches-above-its-weight campus art museum. I oversaw the photography and digitization of the Weisman’s 20,000-object collection, ran the system that kept track of the objects, and did some work on integrating technical stuff into the galleries.
An architecturally significant Frank Gehry building where I learned about digital impermanence
Managing the digital collection was a fascinating problem. And it had a heavily meta side, as well—as we got the collection digitized, the digitized versions themselves turned into a part of the collection to be managed. Before long, we had several terabytes of extremely high resolution images of physical objects, and a large database holding information about each piece (what it was, what its title was, who made it, where they made it, when they made it, what the materials were, where it was physically located, where the museum had gotten it, what past gallery labels had said, where it associated digital assets were, and so on). Plus, new “born digital” works of art would come into the collection, things that only existed as a .jpg or .png or collection of compiled code, with no physical presence to preserve at all. All of this information had to be carefully managed, because it was only valuable or useful if it could be easily accessed and searched; any kind of carelessness and suddenly the museum’s digital collection would just be a kitchen junk drawer that you had to rummage around in for 20 minutes to find an IKEA allen wrench that you thought might be in there somewhere.
And there was a longer-term component to this, as well. Even if we had our informational shit together for the here and now, there always had to be an eye on the long view: would these image files be readable in 20 years? In 40? Were the hard drives that they sat on stable for the long haul? Were they adequately backed up? Did we have adequate offsite backups for everything, in case the building burned down and took the hard drives with it? Were these backups adequately accessible? Even if all of this was well set-up, what would happen if there was a massive failure of the power grid?
The thing about digital collections and digital art is that they are breathtakingly ephemeral. They’re just arrangements of numbers on a disk. They have no physical presence. Having once been a physics undergrad, I used to enjoy trolling my museum co-workers by pointing out that the second law of thermodynamics says that entropy will inevitably increase in a system, that disorder will always win out in the end, and that over the long haul museums were engaged in what had to be a losing war against the second law. That got steadily less funny the more I thought about what would eventually happen to any and all digital art and information. Physical art might degrade throughout the ages, but there’s generally still something you can access. A born-digital piece that just exists on a hard drive that gets corrupted is gone forever.
I read articles about this stuff, I went to conferences to talk about this stuff, and it was always clear. People had ideas for stuff that could be done now to try to prevent obvious problems down the road, but nobody had a long-term answer because there aren’t any, really. You just have to keep on juggling and hope that the plates don’t fall on your shift.
I ended up leaving that job because of budget problems (abdomen tattoo in gothic script: NONPROFIT LYFE), but the weird thing is that this problem is still very much with me. I’ve had a bunch of ongoing art and creative projects over the years, and many of them are born-digital: for seven years, I made a webcomic called Nowhere Band that tried to give an emotionally-true account of what it was like to make music in a band that was never going to make it. I loved that strip, and it was well-received enough to get good coverage from Minnesota Public Radio and City Pages. If there’s anything I’d look on as my life’s work, it’s the 10-year run of Nowhere Band. And as of a few weeks ago, it’s gone, because my web hosting company ran a software update on some servers that was incompatible with the software I was using to display the strip. And I’d taken my eye off the ball with maintaining readily-accessible backup copies of the strips, which existed as simple .png files. The plates fell on my shift there, and they were my own goddamned plates.
I was able to track down scattered backups of most of the strips, and am slowly trying to restore the site (my original plan was to include a link to the restored site in this newsletter, but a drive-by hacking has reduced me to square one again; the second law of thermodynamics manifests in many forms). Somehow, the process of doing that restoration seems to have torched the sites that host my two podcasts, puffing more born-digital work into smoke (although in those cases, I do at least have the files easily accessible, whenever I get the chance to rebuild the hosting sites).
I’ve long gotten used to the fact that all of the art that I’ve made, being digital, will outlive me by exactly one server-hosting billing cycle after I die. It’s a weird thought, but what can you do? I don’t have the resources that even a small museum does to protect this stuff for even the medium term, let alone the long haul. But here’s the thing: this is far from just my problem. The same situation exists for everybody who makes digital art. Which, as we move more and more of our lives online, includes a bigger percentage of people who make art, period.
And that includes you! Your phone is no doubt full of pictures, and many of those pictures are invaluable to you and your family and future members of your family. All of this stuff is ephemeral as hell, just a catastrophe big or small (failure of the power grid, dropping an un-backed-up phone in the toilet) away from disappearing forever. I don’t have a long-term solution for how you should protect them, but at the very least you should back your phone up and maybe get prints of your favorite pics.
We can’t beat the second law of thermodynamics, but we can do our best hold it off for a while.
Right on. Be safe.
I’ve been enjoying Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra quite a bit. I’ve been a Roman history enthusiast for a while, so I know the broad outlines of her story, but of course if you’re looking at it from the Roman angle, Cleopatra shows up as an important supporting character in someone else’s story. Schiff flips that, and it’s great. Ptolemaic Egypt was a fascinating place (weird fact: the pyramids were roughly as ancient to Cleopatra as Cleopatra is to us), and Schiff argues convincingly and entertainingly that Cleopatra was an extremely capable ruler who did a lot more than serially date prominent Romans. Also, if you think your family is full of drama, I assure you that you have nothing on the Ptolemaic royal house.
I’m a big fan of the writer Haruki Murakami, but his books are definitely not without some problematic elements. But he’s refreshingly open to talking about them in this dialogue that presents a feminist critique of his work:
And speaking of Murakami, he’s a very well-known jazz and classical music enthusiast. Someone curated a Spotify playlist based on what’s known about Murakami’s personal vinyl collection, and it’s a fantastic jazz and classical sampler:
OK, so here at the bottom, sorry for the ragged copy editing; my deal with myself was to keep this fast and loose, which is gonna mean typos. On the other hand, that also means it’ll actually come out, instead of being obsessed over.
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