Respect Des Bits: Archival Theory Encounters Digital Objects & Media

In The Is of the Digital Object and the is of the Artifact I explored the extent to which digital objects confound and complicate some of our conceptions of what exactly digital things are.  I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the nature of digital objects offers an important opportunity for the cultural heritage community to consider how some of our core philosophies connect with the nature of digital objects. If we step back from the representations of digital objects on the screen, and think about them as sequences of bits that exist on particular mediums I think some core archival principles have much to offer us.

Example of archaeological stratigraphy. The layers of earth offer insight into understanding & contextualizing objects in the layers much like the arrangement of an archive, and the order of bits on a medium or in a file offer context for understanding and contextualizing. Wikimedia Commons

Media/Medium as Fonds

Whatever your feelings about the imperative to Respect Des Fonds it is a corner stone of the identity and professional practice of archives. Attempting to maintain the original order in which materials were managed before being accessioned and making decisions when processing an archive with respect to the whole both suggest a kind of archeological or paleontological understanding of documents, records and objects. An Objects meaning is always to be understood in context of the objects near it and the structure it is organized in.

To what extent do the bits on a medium’s relationship to other bits on that medium represent a parallel kind of context?  The structure and organization of records and knowledge says as much about the materials as what is inside them. The layers of sediment in which something is found enables you to understand it’s relationship to other things. Context is itself a text to be read.

The Original Order of Bits

All digital objects actually exist first as analog objects, as bits encoded on a particular medium. At that level the bits that exist on a particular medium have an original order to it. At the moment of accession, there is a liner set of bits on any particular media. The hardrive, the optical disk, the 5 inch floppy, each have on them an ordered set of bits that can be copied and made sense of by various technologies, both today and in the future. This is similarly true of the file level. Setting aside the actual physical arrangement of individual bits on a disk each file is composed of a sequence of ones and zeros which come with a order. The fixity check tells us if this order has been altered.

Normalization is Interpretation

When we decide to normalize, or to copy only the representations of digital objects as represented when rendered in particular situations, we are effectively disregarding the original order of the bits on the media. If you copy over the directory structure of files we can still preserve a good bit of the user perceived order of digital context. We can see what things were next to each other in the metaphorical and iconographic folder on someone’s desk top. However, those representations are still (in a sense) translations. They are particular ways of seeing and understanding the underlying bits.

The hashes for a set of files enable us to confirm the bit level fixity of a file. The ability to confirm that the bits are in exactly the same order as they were before. Once normalized we can no longer assert the bit level authenticity of a file. File hashes from the National Software Reference Library.

Beyond this, any attempts to normalize files themselves, to derive other kinds of files is a much deeper disregard for the ideal of respecting the integrity, order and structure of digital objects. In this case, even the screen essentialist notion of the digital object is in question. Each of these moves to normalize, each of these transformations and degradations moves us one step further away from bit level fixity and authenticity, from the authenticity of the fixity check, and toward a kind of performance or restaging of the artifact. We get further and further from being able to assert that what we have is exactly what we were given. We become artists engaged in a performative interpretation or recreation of the artifact.

Recording of single magnetisations of bits on a 200MB Harddisk-platter. The order and structure of the magnetizations of bits on a disk are even strata-like. Information patters with a clear original order. Matesy GmbH

The Order and Logic of Digital Media

But why are we even talking about order? Wasn’t the entire point of the digital the end of linearity? Our experience of digital media is one of non-linearity. The first row of the database or the spread sheet is reorganized based on parameters. The web is made of a linked pages and created from a rhizomic network of connections between nodes. While the representations of digital objects often appear non-linear it is critical to not be seduced by the flickering and transitory view of digital objects provided by our screens. At the end of the day, every digital object is encoded on some medium and that encoding is an ordered sequence of bits.

Letting go of representations and embracing the bits

To try and bring this whole discussion back from theory and into practice, when recently working with a set of files from floppy disks in a collection I came across a set of files I couldn’t open. The extensions made no sense to me or anything else for that matter. I changed the extensions to .txt and opened them in a text editor. Lo and behold, they were mostly made of characters that my computer could interpret as text. I didn’t need to know what format the files were in to be able to make sense of most of their contents. I didn’t need a secret decoder ring. I could just tell my computer to pretend this particular sets of bits we call a file is all text and show me what it sees.

This isn’t just true for files with text in them. While you might not be able to play the disk image of a game, anyone can crack it open and look at the text files, various script files, texture files, audio files (in the order they exist) and understand them in context. Even the metaphorical folder names inside that disk image tell us about what is there.

Computers and software become the tools we can use to make sense of the stratigraphy of the disk, to interpret the order of bits. Imaging disks (logical or forensic) attends to that order.