New Media and Social Memory

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13washington Digital Curation sum 1 illWhether they manage bits for their local historical society or the Library of Congress, the digital era has placed added demands on today’s curators. The growing need for training in these new skills is one of the motivations for the University of Maine’s just-launched Digital Curation graduate program, but U-Me is not alone in recognizing this need.

On January 8th a Digital Curation summit in Washington, DC, brought together educators from U-Me together with the first wave of digital curation programs to meet with professional curators, librarians, and archivists from nationwide institutions with the aim of defining the knowledge and skills needed by today’s information caretakers.

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CivPreserving Virtual Worlds, an IMLS-funded initiative organized by the universities of Illinois, Stanford, and Maryland, was founded with an ambitious goal: to explore innovative methods for preserving the rich legacy of video games. Its case studies have ranged from vintage games like DOOM and Harpoon to more contemporary Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games such as World of Warcraft. The initiative even attempted to recommend options for documenting complex multiplayer environments such as Second Life.

The consortium’s organizers, led by Jerome McDonough of Illinois, invited Still Water Senior Researcher John Bell and co-director Jon Ippolito to their December advisory board meeting in Washington, D.C., to discuss ways that Preserving Virtual Worlds could take advantage of Still Water’s preservation and access tools such as the Variable Media Questionnaire and the Metaserver.

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Re Collection LogoRe-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory will be the first full-length academic book on preserving digital media. Due out this coming year from MIT Press, the publication is a collaboration between Still Water’s Jon Ippolito and Richard Rinehart, director of the Samek Art Gallery at Bucknell.

Re-collection argues that the default strategies for safeguarding media in the 20th century are utterly inadequate for preserving culture in the 21st. While the quantity of cultural artifacts has been increasing dramatically, the average lifespan of each artifact is shrinking due to technological obsolescence and cultural amnesia.

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Avicom LogoThe keynote for this year’s International Audiovisual Festival on Museums and Heritage focuses on very new–and very old–technologies for crowdsourcing the curation and preservation of culture. Delivered by Still Water Co-Director Jon Ippolito, the presentation “Re-collection” draws on themes from the forthcoming book of the same name.

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11florianopolis Abciber 8 illWhich is the oldest human record?

In his keynote presentation to the National Symposium of Brazilian Cyberculture, Jon Ippolito argues it is lurking in the Amazon rainforest.

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Pocos Blue medRichard Rinehart, co-author with Still Water’s Jon Ippolito of the forthcoming MIT book New Media and Social Memory, presents conclusions from the book at the POCOS/HATII symposium on Software Art in Glasgow on 11 October.

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Isea 2011 LogoDrawing on the forthcoming book New Media and Social Memory co-authored with Richard Rinehart, Jon Ippolito speaks on “Wind, Rain, and Ambient Preservation” at ISEA 2011 in Istanbul. 

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Two recent stories on conserving contemporary art speak to how removed museums and foundations are from the “proliferative preservation” of digital creators. The New York Observer writes about a Whitney Museum taskforce created to police the replication of art via exhibition copies, and their headline says it all: Copy That! Wait, Don’t.

Meanwhile an article from The New York Times, How to Conserve Art That Lives in a Lake?, revisits the conservation issues of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, which following a period of high water levels in the Great Salt Lake re-emerged encrusted with salt.

Authors of both articles raise some fundamental questions about conservation:

“What counts as a replica? Who has the authority to produce one?” (NY Observer)

“And if any conservation plans were to go forward, then the really complicated work would begin: trying to figure out what Mr. Smithson would have thought about it.” (NY Times)

As noted by Berkeley’s Richard Rinehart, these are among the exact questions asked by the Variable Media Questionnaire, whose third iteration is being built by Still Water under the aegis of the Forging the Future alliance.

Rinehart and I are also co-authoring a book from MIT Press with the working title of New Media and Social Memory, which speaks to the issue of proliferative preservation. The New York Times reports that some visitors to the Spiral Jetty “borrowed” some of its stones to make tiny jetties of their own, or in one case to spell out the word BEER.

Regardless of how you may feel about this “contamination” of Smithson’s work by the hands of ordinary viewers, New Media and Social Memory argues that digital media allow a both/and preservation dynamic. If they were digital artifacts, both Bob Smithson’s and Bob Schmo’s version of Spiral Jetty could co-exist peaceably.

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