Tag and Release: Acquiring & Making Available Infinitely Reproducible Digital Objects

What does it mean to acquire something, like a set of animated .gifs,  that are already widely available on the web? Archives and Museums are often focused on acquiring, preserving and making accessible rare or unique documents, records, objects and artifacts. While someone might take a photo of an object, or reproduce it in any number of ways, the real object would reside in the institution. How does this perspective shift when we switch to working with rare and unique born-digital materials?

"I code therefore I am" by user circle_hk on Flickr.

“I code therefore I am” by user circle_hk on Flickr.

Given that digital objects function on a completely different logic where (for nearly all intents and purposes) any copy is as original as the original, rare and unique is a somewhat outmoded notion for digital material. Any accurate copy of a digital object is as much the object as the original. So, if it is trivial to create lots of copies of unique materials how does that change what it means to acquire and make them available?

Consideration of Cooper Hewitt’s acquisition of the source code of an iPad application offers an opportunity to rethink some of what acquisition can mean for digital materials, and in the process rethink part of what the functions of cultural heritage organizations are and can be in this area. What follows are reflections largely inspired by thinking through Sebastian Chan and Aaron Straup Cope’s recent essay Collecting the present: digital code and collections and Doug Reside’s recent essay File Not Found: Rarity in the Age of Digital Plenty (pdf). Together, I think these two essays suggest a potential shift for thinking about digital artifacts. Potentially, a shift away from a mindset of Acquire and Make Available to a mindset of Tag and Release. It may be that the best thing cultural heritage organizations can do with rare and unique born-digital materials is to make it so that they are no longer rare and unique at all. To make it easy for anyone to interact with and validate copies of these materials. This is some formative thinking on the topic, so I look forward to discussing/talking about these issues with anyone interested in the comments.

Copy the Source, Let Others Copy the Source

In 2013 the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum acquired Planetary, an iPad application that creates visualizations of collections of music. In practice, this involved acquiring it’s source code and making that code available through its GitHub account. Note, the acquisition did not involve making a commitment of resources to ensure that people will be able to experience the application as users did on iPads. In fact, in that sense, the Planetary software is already obsolete, in that new versions of the iOS software will not run it.

However, by acquiring the source code under version control, along with all of the bug reports and tickets associated with its development, Cooper Hewitt is preserving and making available both the raw material for anyone to make use of and an extensive record of the design and development process. As Doug Reside, digital curator for the performing arts at the New York Public Library recently suggested in an essay in Rare Books and Manuscripts, “the source code behind the program might be considered a manuscript.” In a case like this, where documentation of the entire history of the software’s development is present, the Planetary files might be better understood as an archive, a manuscript collection or, as they are textual in nature, even a documentary edition.

Each commit message with changes and edits to the source is itself a record of the production and creation of the software. In this vein, the acquisition, in a way, escapes the limitations of screen essentialism, i.e. privileging the single representation of a digital object on a screen as its essential form instead of respecting the myriad ways that digital objects manifest themselves. To this end, forgoing the complex issues of attempting to keep the software functional and instead focusing on the ease of collecting the source code and representative documentary materials such as screencaptures will provide future users a base from which to understand and potentially recreate or expand the app.

Anyone can download the entirety of the Planetary acquisition. You can save it to your computer and you too will have, in a sense,  acquired the application as well. That is, the copy of the “real” object on the shelf, or on Cooper-Hewitt’s servers, is no more or less authentic than any other copy of it. The digital objects that make up the acquisition are themselves infinitely, perfectly reproducible. Much like the geocities special collection, anyone is welcome to do what they like with it, exhibit it, revise it, etc. So, what role does the museum as repository play in this case? Using GitHub  to provide access to the source code and its history, Cooper Hewitt has put a stake in the ground to offer resources to steward the code, but it opens up a broader question about what it means to acquire something when anyone can have a perfect copy, undifferentiatable from the original.

The Acquisition of a Sequence of Symbols

In Collecting the present: digital code and collections, Sebastian Chan and Aaron Straup Cope of the Cooper-Hewitt Design Museum offer a wealth of information contextualizing and explaining the acquisition of the Planetary app. Of particular relevance to the question of uniqueness and acquisition they point to an even more symbolic acquisition, the Museum of Modern Art’s acquisition of the @ symbol.

In 2010, the Museum of Modern art acquired the @ symbol. Not a representation of it, but the symbol itself. As Paola Antonelli, Senior Curator, Department of Architecture and Design explains: The acquisition of @ “relies on the assumption that physical possession of an object as a requirement for an acquisition is no longer necessary, and therefore it sets curators free to tag the world and acknowledge things that ‘cannot be had’—because they are too big (buildings, Boeing 747’s, satellites), or because they are in the air and belong to everybody and to no one, like the @—as art objects befitting MoMA’s collection.” While the @ symbol is significantly more ethereal than a digital object, I think the story of this acquisition has some interesting lessons for thinking about acquiring digital materials which are infinitely and perfectly reproducible.

Software’s source code is much more concrete than the @ symbol. A software’s source code consists of a range of digital files. With that said, the acquisition of source code is functionally the acquisition of a sequence of symbols. The non-rivalrous nature of digital objects, means that one organization having a copy of a file doesn’t in any way preclude another organization or individual from having exactly the same thing. The logic of the acquisition Planetary is of pinning these digital objects down, providing some context, and making some commitments to ensuring access to data. It is a logic of non-rivalrous acquisition, simply making a commitment to ensure long term access to these materials.

Tag and Release

The idea of “tagging the world,” in Antonelli’s remarks about the acquisition of the @ symbol, can open up a fruitful way of thinking about digital acquisitions. As I’ve suggested before, I think it’s important for cultural heritage organizations to start letting go of the requirement to provide the definitive interface. Instead, cultural heritage organizations can focus more on selection and working to ensure long term preservation and integrity of data. The Planetary case pushes that idea even further. The Planetary acquisition includes a set of materials that document the experience of the application. They include things like screenshots and descriptions of how it functioned. While these assets offer a sense of what the experience of using the app was, the source code provides a rich set of materials for future users to use to understand how it worked and potentially reenact it.

Instead of wading into the complex issues of attempting to keep the software functional in perpetuity, they have acquired a copy of its source code, made a commitment to ensure long-term access to the data, and made it available under the most liberal license they could. The curatorial function of selection, identifying digital objects that matter and should be preserved, persists without the need to be the only entity that “owns” the object.

In this scenario, the library, archive or museum identifies objects of significance — tagging them in Antonelli’s terms — and then works to broker the right to collect and acquire records and other artifacts that document the object and provide as unrestricted access as possible to what they acquire. Just as a design museum might collect the blueprints for a building instead of collecting the building itself  an institution can collect the source code of a piece of software instead of, or alongside, collecting a copy of the software in its executable form and then working to make that material available in the broadest way possible. From there out, the institution serves to provide authentic copies and validate the authenticity of copies while also providing provenance and context; and ensuring ongoing preservation of an authentic copy.

The future of collecting and preserving born-digital special collections, collections of rare or unique materials like manuscripts, drafts and original source code, might upset some of the core ideas of custodianship. I think the best thing cultural heritage organizations can do with these rare are and unique born-digital materials may be to make it so that they are no longer rare and unique at all. By making a set of unique and rare materials easy for anyone to see and copy the institution can help ensure both the broadest use and access of the materials.