Born Digital Cultural Heritage – Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

The collection and preservation of the ‘born digital’ has, in recent years, become a growing and significant area of debate. The honeymoon years are over and finally institutions are beginning to give serious consideration to best practice for digital preservation strategies and the establishment of digital collections. Digital technology emerges and disappears with incredible speed, as a once-new piece of hardware or software becomes old and is replaced by the next technological advancement. What happens to: videogame software and hardware of the 1980s and 90s? The web browsers, blogs and social media sites and content they once displayed? The artworks that relied on pre-2000 computers to create art? Are these – amongst many other – digital creations fated to be abandoned, becoming only memories of individual experience? Are they to be collected by institutions as defunct objects? Or are they to be preserved and revived using new digital technology? These are but a few of the serious questions facing collecting institutions. The question of who is responsible for collecting, preserving and historicising born digital cultural heritage is a crucial one, as is the issue of best practice – what are the best ways to preserve and make accessible such born digital heritage?

In June 2014, our “Play It Again”[1] project team ran an international conference on “The Born Digital and Cultural Heritage” that aimed to convene a forum where some of these issues could be discussed. “Play It Again” was a three year project focused on the history and preservation of microcomputer games written in 1980s Australia and New Zealand, but as the first digital preservation project to be funded as research in this part of the world (at least to our knowledge), it also had a broader significance. We tried to use it to raise awareness around some of the threats facing born digital cultural production more broadly, beyond 1980s digital games. Two of the project’s aims were to “Enhance appreciation for the creations of the early digital period” and “To build capacity in both the academic and cultural sectors in the area of digital cultural heritage and the ‘born digital’”, both critical issues internationally. A two-day event held at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Melbourne, the conference’s remit was thus deliberately wider than the focus of the Australian Research Council Linkage Project.

The need for cooperation between different stakeholders – legislative bodies, professionals working in different types of institutions, and the private sector – was a key recommendation of the 2012 “Vancouver Declaration,” a Memory of the World initiative (UNESCO). Born digital artefacts often require multiple sets of expertise, therefore our call for papers invited proposals from researchers and practitioners in a range of disciplines, spheres of practice and institutional contexts concerned with born digital heritage. This included libraries, archives, museums, galleries, moving image institutions, software repositories, universities, and more besides. We wanted to create a space where communication between the different types of professionals dealing with preservation of born digital cultural heritage could take place. Archivists, librarians, conservators, and moving image archivists share many challenges, yet, we suspect, often they attend conferences which are profession based, which enforces a kind of silo-ing of knowledge. Particularly in small countries such as Australia and New Zealand, there’s a need for conversations to take place across professional boundaries, and so we sought to bring people who perhaps don’t normally move in the same circles into contact.

The presentations during the conference ranged in approach from theoretical, to practical, to policy-oriented. We gloried in the range of papers that were presented. There were game histories, reflections on the demoscene, on net.art and other forms of media art, on born digital manuscripts, robots, twitter accounts and website archiving. As well as papers addressing different forms of heritage materials, there were also technical reports on the problems with hacking and patching disk images to get them to emulate, on software migration, and legal papers on copyright protection, and the ‘right to be forgotten’. (Audio of many of the presentations is available here. The variety of presentations made painfully visible the enormous task at hand in addressing born digital cultural heritage.

While Refractory focuses on entertainment media, in this issue we recognise that born digital entertainment media share many of the challenges of non-entertainment objects. Here, we have collected article versions of selected papers from the conference. The topics and subjects are varied – from those looking more broadly at approaches to born digital heritage and the preservation of digital art, to the documentation of and public discourse about early game histories, and to future creative writing practice facilitated through the collection of digital manuscripts.

In his paper “It Is What It Is, Not What It Was: Making Born Digital Heritage” (which was a keynote address), Henry Lowood examines the preservation and collection of digital media in the context of cultural heritage. Lowood is concerned with “the relationship between collections of historical software and archival documentation about that software” and poses the question “Who is interested in historical software and what will they do with it?” He argues that “answers to this fundamental question must continue to drive projects in digital preservation and software history”. Using the examples of ‘The Historian’, ‘The Media Archaeologist’ and ‘The Re-enactor’ his paper raises important questions about the function, purpose and varied approaches to the digital archive. The historian, he states, is interested in the digital archival material in order to interpret, reconstruct and retell its story in history. For the media archaeologist, “media machines are transparent in their operation” and, rather than requiring interpretation, speak of their pastness by making possible the playback of “historical media on historical machines”. Finally, for ‘The Re-enactor’, ‘authenticity’ is a crucial factor for digital preservation; however, the question of authenticity is fraught with debate – on the one hand, the re-enactor at one extreme insists on a “fidelity of play” with the software that engages with technology (hardware and software) in its original state, and at the other extreme is the re-enactor who is willing to forgo the historical machine in favour of emulation and virtualisation that recreates an embodied experience of ‘playing’ with the original software, whether a game or word processing program. In either case, as Lowood explains, “Re-enactment offers a take on born-digital heritage that proposes a commitment to lived experience.”

In their article “Defining The Experience: George Poonhkin Khut’s Distillery: Waveforming, 2012”, Amanda Pagliarino and artist George Poonkhin Khut present an account of Khut’s sensory artwork, Distillery: Waveforming 2012, which uses the prototype iPad application ‘BrightHearts,’ which was acquired by the Queensland Art Gallery. The Curator of Contemporary Australian Art requested that the acquisition “was captured in perpetuity in its prototype state”. The authors explain that this biofeedback artwork is ‘iterative’ and Khut continued to develop the work in other iterations that include updates for the BrightHearts app for touch screen devices. This article describes the development of the artwork and the issues that were addressed in its acquisition, archiving, and the consultations that took place between the artist and the collecting institution. As the writers argue “to secure the commitment of the artist to engage in collaborative, long-term conservation strategies is extraordinary and this has resulted in the Gallery acquiring an unparalleled archival resource” that includes documentation and description of the interactive principles and behaviour of the artwork in its early state and as it evolved in Khut’s art practise. This archival resource will make it possible for the work to be reinterpreted “at some point in the future when the original technology no longer functions as intended”. In this respect, Distillery: Waveforming is understood as a “legacy artwork intrinsically linked to past and future iterations” of Khut’s larger Biofeedback Project.

The next article “There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit” by Veronika Megler focuses on the iconic text adventure game The Hobbit (Melbourne House, 1981), which Megler co-wrote during the final year of her Bachelor of Science degree at Melbourne University. This paper is a case history of the development of the The Hobbit (based on J.R.R.Tolkien’s novel of the same name) into a game that could run on the first generation of home computers that were just beginning to hit the market. Little has been written about the development of the first generation of text-based computer games; this case history provides insight into this developmental period in computer game history. Megler describes the development process, the internal design, and the genesis of the ideas that made The Hobbit unique. She compares the development environment and the resulting game to the state-of-the-art in text adventure games of the time, and wraps up by discussing the game’s legacy and the recent revival of interest in the game.

Jaakko Suominen and Anna Sivula’s article “Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process — Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game” continues with games, analysing how digital games become cultural heritage. By using examples of changing conceptualisations of the first commercial Finnish computer game, the article examines the amateur and professional historicisation of computer games. The authors argue that the production of cultural heritage is a process of constructing symbolic monuments that are often related to events of change or the beginning of a progressive series of events, and the article presents an account of the formation of games as symbolic cultural monuments within a Finnish context. Whilst many researchers and journalists have claimed that Raharuhtinas (Money Prince 1984) for Commodore 64 was the first Finnish commercial digital game, its status as such is controversial. As the authors explain, “in this paper, we are more interested in public discourse of being the first” and how this relates to the cultural heritage process. The case of the ‘first’ game, it is argued, illuminates how items are selected as building material for digital game cultural heritage.

In “Retaining Traces of Composition in Digital Manuscript Collections: a Case for Institutional Proactivity”, Millicent Weber turns to digital manuscripts, their collection, preservation and digital storage by collecting institutions. Weber argues that libraries, archives and scholars have not addressed the content of future digital or part-digital collections, or their capacity to support sustained scholarly research. This paper examines the potential content of future collections of poetry manuscripts and their capacity to support research into the process of composition. To predict this capacity, the article compares a study of compositional process, using handwritten and typewritten manuscripts, with a small-scale survey of early-career poets’ compositional habits. The draft manuscripts of three poems by the poet Alan Gould and three by the poet Chris Mansell are used to describe each poet’s compositional habits, while the survey component of the project obtained information about the drafting practices of 12 students of creative writing and poetry at the University of Canberra. Weber concludes that the results indicate both the great diversity of manuscript collections currently being created, and the importance of archival institutions adopting an active advocacy role in encouraging writers to create and maintain comprehensive and well-organised collections of digital manuscripts.

The collection and preservation of born digital cultural heritage is of critical importance. In the digital era, “Heritage refers to legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what should be passed from generation to generation because of its significance and value” (UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force 16). If we want to ensure that records and works from this era persist, we will need to substantially ramp up our efforts. Cooperation between different stakeholders is critical and the research sector has an important role to play, in undertaking collaborative research with cultural institutions to tackle some of the thornier challenges surrounding the persistence of born digital cultural heritage.

Works cited

UNESCO. “UNESCO/UBC Vancouver Declaration, The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation.” N.p., 2012. Web. 17 Dec. 2012.

UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force. “The UNESCO/PERSIST Guidelines for the Selection of Digital Heritage for Long-Term Preservation.” 2016. Web.

 

[1] The “Play It Again” project received support under the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects funding Scheme (project number LP120100218). See our research blog and the “Popular Memory Archive” for more information on the project.

 

Bios

Associate Professor Melanie Swalwell is a scholar of digital media arts, cultures, and histories. She is the recipient of an ARC Future Fellowship for her project “Creative Micro-computing in Australia, 1976-1992”. Between 2011-15, she was Project Leader and Chief Investigator on the ARC Linkage Project “Play It Again“. In 2009, Melanie was the Nancy Keesing Fellow (State Library of New South Wales). She has authored chapters and articles in both traditional and interactive formats, in such esteemed journals as ConvergenceVectors, and the Journal of Visual Culture. Melanie’s projects include:

  • “Creative Micro-computing in Australia, 1976-1992”. Watch the filmhere.
  • Australasian Digital Heritage, which gathers together several local digital heritage research projects. Follow us onFacebook & Twitter @ourdigiheritage
  • Play It Again: Creating a Playable History of Australasian Digital Games, for Industry, Community and Research Purposes”, ARC Linkage, 2012-14. Follow us onFacebook & Twitter @AgainPlay, and visit the Popular Memory Archive.

 

Angela Ndalianis is Professor in Screen Studies at Melbourne University, and the Director of the Transformative Technologies Research Unit (Faculty of Arts). Her research interests include: genre studies, with expertise in the horror and science fiction genres; entertainment media and media histories; the contemporary entertainment industry. Her publications include Neo-Baroque Aesthetics and Contemporary Entertainment (MIT Press 2004), Science Fiction Experiences (New Academia 2010), The Horror Sensorium; Media and the Senses (McFarland 2012) and The Contemporary Comic Book Superhero (editor, Routledge 2008). She is currently completing two books: Batman: Myth and Superhero; and Robots and Entertainment Culture. She is also a Fellow of the Futures of Entertainment Network (U.S), and is the Hans Christian Andersen Academy’s Visiting Professor (2015-7), a position also affiliated with the University of Southern Denmark.   

Volume 27, 2016

Themed Issue: Born Digital Cultural Heritage

Edited by Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

Introduction: Born Digital Heritage – Angela Ndalianis & Melanie Swalwell

  1. It Is What It Is, Not What It Was: Making Born Digital Heritage – Henry Lowood
  2. Defining The Experience: George Poonhkin Khut’s Distillery: Waveforming, 2012 – Amanda Pagliarino & George Poonkhin Khut
  3. There and Back Again: A Case History of Writing The Hobbit – Veronika Megler
  4. Participatory Historians in Digital Cultural Heritage Process: Monumentalization of the First Finnish Commercial Computer Game – Jaakko Suominen and Anna Sivula
  5. Retaining Traces of Composition in Digital Manuscript Collections: a Case for Institutional Proactivity – Millicent Weber