art historian, environmentalist, educator

When your virtual world takes up physical space

My son’s amiibo collection is taking over our mantel.

If you aren’t familiar with “amiibos” they are toys-to-life figurines that can be read by gaming devices that offer in-game rewards and bonuses. When I first discovered toys to life figurines (prior to amiibos) I admittedly thought they were ingenous in terms of marketing and game interaction. But eventually, any collection, can become cumbersome.

Amiibos are just a miniscule example of the fact that virtual information, does in fact take up physical space. Smithies, and others, in the management of data projects for Kings College explained the policy context of the need for digital sustainability and preservation as they reflected back on the days of the 90s and technology was new. There was an idea that it all could last forever now, and be accomplished to easily and cheaply. But in 2020 we realize that this isn’t necessarily the case, and data and information creators need to think about the longevity of their work.

This is particularly true as the physical demands of our virtual information are burgeoning. In 2020, we have data center after data center, the central repositories for internet data and clouds, that are taking over suburban development. Having studied urban and environmental policy and planning I know that the causes of this are multifaceted, and solving the problem of the physical takeover of suburban/rural land needs to be multifaceted as well. Trevor Owens wrote in his recent book on the subject that while attending a summit for the Library of Congress on digital preservation suggested that someone “hoover it all up and shoot it into space” (Owens 1). I laughed and then resonated with idea momentarily given my abhorrence for data centers, and I quickly found that this idea actually is being discussed as Space X and other commercial ventures are pushing the boundaries of space exploration (see https://www.datacenterknowledge.com/edge-computing/idea-data-centers-space-just-got-little-less-crazy).

Owens discusses the challenges to digitial preservation, but I think one of the issues at the forefront is that because of its “virtual” nature, somehow it is less physically present in our mind. Owens states, “Preservation means different things in different contexts”  (Owens 13). He explains the difference in preservation for artifacts versus information, and predominantly the difference is that we are talking about physical objects (traditionally) versus digital information. Coming from the art history context, the point of art history is in fact to preserve actual objects, and the tangibility of these items are important. I am reminded of Joanna Drucker’s contemplation of a dystopian virtual museum in “The Museum Opens,” where she begins envisioning a completely interactive and virtual reality based museum. By the end of the essay, she has quickly turned the trajectory of the narrative, and what started out sounding like a phenomenal idea ends with a feeling of danger and emptiness. During our explorations of GIS, Seibert also discussed the implications of mapping images and the importance of visualizations because humans are spatial beings (in “Using GIS to Document, Visualize, and Interpret Tokyo’s Spatial History,” (538). There is a innate physicality to our existence. So how do we wrap our head around the need for digital preservation, how do we prioritize and manage the entity of information that has become behemoth in the past thirty years? What really needs to be preserved? And how do we preserve our environment as well as information in a way that is beneficial to the human race? Questions I have yet to answer….

References

Johanna Drucker, “The Museum Opens,” International Journal for Digital Art History 4 (2019).

Trevor Owens, The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018)

Loren Siebert, “Using GIS to Document, Visualize, and Interpret Tokyo’s Spatial History,” Social Science History 24, no. 3 (2000):537-574.

James Smithies, et al, “Managing 100 Digital Humanities Projects: Digital Scholarship & Archiving in King’s Digital Lab,” Digital Humanities Quarterly 13, no. 1 (2019), http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/13/1/000411/000411.html.

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