Thursday, November 14, 2013

Erase and Rewind

Reading that the Conservative Party has not only removed past speeches from their website but apparently done everything it can to wipe past traces of them from other accessible internet sites (and in the week that the Internet archive suffered a major fire that though not threatening its existence reminds us that these things are never as permanent as we hope), brings up quite a lot of interesting questions.

Having once worked in data processing I know that data is evidence; yet at the same time its "virtual" nature means that it can somehow stop - to all intents and purposes - existing. Those researching their family tree are so dependent on those "permanent" archives such as censuses, church records, army records etc. yet nothing is ever truly permanent. (Shelley fans may recall "Ozymandias" for instance.) It is why Nicholson Baker (and others) were so up in arms about the deletion of the physical archive. Paper not only gives us the context, but can't be so easily destroyed. Its a stock feature of detective stories and thrillers where a piece of information goes missing (even in SF like "Minority Report") and has been deliberately removed. Its absence is what makes it significant.

Yet if we destroy whole archives - or make them impossible to find - then what next? The assault on the pubic sector that David Cameron (surely not by coincidence) has repeated this week is about a "smaller state". Far better for those who want to control us to control the information flow, the information archive as well? The irony of this - in a year when whistleblower Edward Snowden highlighted how much they are eavesdropping on us all - is hard to ignore. For data is information, information is power - and deletion of the truth and its context are the best ways to avoid the consequence of those actions. It may seem that in a digital world it is harder than ever to destroy information - yet taking data out of consequence can we really be sure that the raw data is understandable?

Why buy books in an age of Wikipedia and Kindle? So much is context - but so much is also conservation - what if we can no longer rely on the public bodies to conserve. Are we like those Dr. Who fans still mistily remembering the single showing of a sixties show that was erased by a BBC that (then as now) placed the news archive above the cultural one. Luckily we have the BBC recordings of the Beatles (out this week) to swell the coffers - as ever these collections don't come from one pristine source but from wherever possible. A record label that went bust like Factory has its master tapes dispersed, often lost. Our personal archives become original sources - more so than ever in the digital age. And here we come back to that erasing of the past - it happens anyhow by things becoming neglected. Archives occasionally discover manuscripts of some importance (amongst the many of no importance.)

Our encouragement to the virtual, cloud etc. means that we are somehow expecting the curation to be done for us  that there will always be a copy available. Yet caught up in extended copyright laws (this month, if I'm not mistaken, copyright on recordings extends from 50 years to 70 years, ensuring the Beatles stay protected another 20 years) things can and do disappear. Archive labels like Trunk Records and Finders Keepers scour junkshops and old archives for the oldest tracks - I know lots of people who were in bands in their twenties or teens and haven't a single copy of their music online or offline. Think of your first digital photographs - do they still exist in any format? Or have you a gap between ditching the Kodak and opening your Flickr account? And what when things close down? Old blogs, old projects.

There is often a commercial desire to erase the past - an artist like Prince stopping his music from being shared online for instance. Yet at the the other end of the spectrum all those Pearl Jam and Fugazi shows available to download. Is this an overcuration?

In "Poetry" magazine last year, they talked about going through the archive and seeing amongst the gems that are now classics, a mass of poetry that isn't, that didn't last. Historically interesting to see which poems were read at the same time as William Carlos Williams or whoever. Look at old punk footage and see the audience - mostly with long hair - as their gigs took place at student unions where the last bands had been prog rockers. I hate recreations of the 80s on television - the pretty young actors have a Now Thats What I Call the 80s view of the decade, the hair and clothes are all wrong, but often, so is the soundtrack.

We can't recreate the past - it is gone - but our archiving of it; our self archiving if you like might be the only thing that separates our own version of that past from the official version which - as the world gets catalogued online by one or two massive corporations or controlled by governments - makes it ever more important that we keep some physical copy even if a CD-R of bits and bytes. The irony about the digital is that it doesn't really exist unless it is copied, but once it is copied once it can exist apparently infinitely. Yet, our reliance on the primary copy (Conservative Party website for their speeches for instance) means that our own version becomes increasingly important. I'm clearing out my desk today; old leaflets for old projects appear and go straight to the bin; I'm assuming everything will be available on the server - yet at some point it will be lost - hidden away, not so much in an unmarked grave, but on an unmarked archive tape or disc. It exists but it is no more.

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