31 August 2009

Archival problems for digital data

Wall Street Journal raises the problem of keeping track of scientists' digital data. Not only are the data sets scientists use growing exponentially but also scientific communication is distributed across channels (email, YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, IM etc.). These distributed trails of idea development present a very different scenario for archivists compared, say, to the collatable notebooks and correspondence of 19th century scientists. The British Library now has its first curator of eManuscripts, Jeremy Leighton John, who points out that not only are electronic trails harder to trace than traditional media, it's also hard to demonstrate their authenticity.

A further issue, not raised in the WSJ article, is ownership of digital content that sits across channels provided by commercial operators. Richard Stallman has taken a strong line on entrusting your data to the cloud; echoed, recently, by John Naughton.

The description of digitally distributed lives reminded me of the rather plaintive article by David Ulin in the LA Times on the lost art of reading (i.e. immersing yourself in a book, without the distraction of email and other demands). Although I sympathise, I thought Ulin's complaint a sign of his times, as much as of the times. I like Howard Rheingold's recommendation for dealing with those other distractions: treat them as a flow which you can allow to wash over you, without having to respond to everything that's out there. Of course it seems that some people are better at that than others: Not Exactly Rocket Science reports data from Eyal Ophir at Stanford showing that heavy multi-media users are less able to filter out distractions than lighter users. Ophir doesn't comment on which he thinks comes first, the different styles of 'cognitive control', or the styles in media use. But he is open to the possibility that there may be advantages in the distractability that multi-media users display (NERS teases, 'Cough, Susan Greenfield, Cough.').

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