From clay tablets to #foodporn – an archivarian moment
The contents of archives – what people have considered worthy of preservation – have varied from time to time and from place to place. They can be anything from Mesopotamian clay tablets, Egyptian papyrus rolls, medieval parchments, fossils of extinct animals, piles of official documents or leather-bound first editions, to microfilms, hard disks and digital databases.
According to Daston, a shift took place in the mid-19th century. Until then, people had preserved only highly selective material (such as the thoughts of important philosophers and astronomical observations in line with the best mathematical models of the day), but there was now an increasing tendency to preserve "everything". Science was in a state of flux and it must be possible to counter and test new theories. This required the existence of flexible and comprehensive archives. And with that, the nightmare of "too much information" was born.
Daston claims we are in the midst of what she calls "an archivarian moment". On the one hand, we are overwhelmed by all the information we have available to us, while on the other we fear that everything could disappear at the stroke of a key ("the page you are looking for no longer exists", incompatible data storage systems, cyber-attacks).
What will the archive of the future look like? How can we assure continuity between past, present and future when everything is in flux? With this as the point of departure there is an insistence that we must broaden our horizons and look at archival practices across time and fields of research – move our attention from the research object to the practices themselves.
Daston highlights the fact that practices have their own chronology and rhythm; they follow a slower, more robust tempo than the individual empirical findings – discoveries are constantly being made, but practices change more slowly. Statistical significance testing is one example of a practice which has shaped and which dominates clinical medicine research. Daston believes we could think similarly about archival practice. It follows its own extremely slow tempo. If we recognise that, it enables our thoughts about the archive to reach across disciplinary traditions and down the centuries.
Science in the Archives. Pasts, Presents, Futures contains contributions from very different scientific disciplines, from the use of fossils as an archive of palaeontology, to archives of digital representations of ourselves. If we understand ourselves as a bundle of historical memories – where have I come from, what have I achieved? – what implications will a growing tendency for digital logging and sharing then have for our understanding of ourselves?
Just think what we are confronted with daily on various digital media – everything from our own pulse data from the last exercise session, a screenshot of an amusing text message, a photo from our most recent restaurant visit (there are currently some 140 million food photos under the hashtag #foodporn on Instagram) to video logs where we share a personal experience. Do digital traces remember better and more truthfully than our own memory? If we think of the self as an archive, is, then, a digital archive a truer representation of ourselves?