Capturing the ephemeral: Archiving our digital present


I was invited today by the American Centre in Colombo today to deliver a lecture on digital archives in general, from the perspective of a citizen archivist. The presentation looked at the ways information around contemporary events, issues and processes, in Sri Lanka and elsewhere, are being generated digitally and largely lost for posterity, raising the challenge of archiving this plethora of content. The presentation also looked at how subjective curation, collective participation, the democratisation of technical platforms and their use have radically altered how we perceive our past, re-examine our present and capture multiple truths.

The lecture lasted around one and a half hours with just over half an hour for questions and answers, which were uniformly interesting. Though my presentation focussed on digital archives and archiving, the majority of the questions were anchored to how notions of privacy, and safeguarding privacy, were out of sync with the way I foresaw how personal archives would evolve in the years and decades ahead. There was also some interesting discussion on the process of archiving content on social media – what I called information that was born or produced digitally, were resident or published only the web and never reproduced in physical form or formats. The question dealt with whether it was better to record as much as possible, or whether it was better to curate the ‘best’, ‘most important’ or ‘most pertinent’ content, the difference between say archiving every single tweet around a hashtag, or creating a Storify or Bundlr bundle around the same event or process. I’ve done both, and discussed the relative merits of choosing one over the other and the advantage of doing both. We also talked about issues of copyright when archiving, the right to, in effect, erase oneself from the archives of another, the challenges over the corporate control of information in the public domain, the way in which many today put up content on social media platforms without any critical thinking around long-term impact or preservation, the challenges around third party archival of social media accounts and content, and lastly, how and if my experience and knowledge as a citizen archivist could be transferred to Sri Lanka’s National Archives and others.

In brief, my lecture started off by how archival and archives today have transitioned from dealing with just the purely physical or printed, to a variety of digital content. I noted some key differences in archiving digital content in comparison to the preservation of physical content. I focussed the rest of the presentation on three points,

  • democratisation of archiving
  • folksonomy vs. taxonomy
  • corporate ownership of private collections

Noting the coast to coast blanket of broadband and the ever decreasing cost of storage online, I said citizen archivists today had the potential to curate, collect and store information and digital artefacts with no real limits on the size of the archive. I flagged several leading institutional and official archive platforms and sites before focussing more on citizen generated archives.

I went through what I had done in Sri Lanka, starting with Voices of Reconciliation Radio, Websites at Risk, Moving Images, the LLRC archives on Groundviews, the Twitter archives I’ve done, Groundviews itself and in particular stories around the Mannar mass grave, mass graves in Sri Lanka as depicted on Google Earth, and the Nandikadal lagoon area imagery on Google Earth during the end of the war in 2009 as ways through which my own archival skills, or curation leveraging archival material on the web, had created downloadable, public archives, accessible for free, that were unique in Sri Lanka. I also flagged my work around the archives I created for Women and Media Collective capturing 25 years of their activism (in essence, a compelling history of feminism in Sri Lanka), court records around web censorship, other archives on the LLRC and other websites located in or on Sri Lanka that archived, for posturing, narratives, processes, communities and individuals who would otherwise be erased, lost or marginal to official historical accounts.

I then flagged how citizen archivists around the world were helping official, government archives and universities to strengthen their own archives, by, for example, crowdsourcing the population or meta-data generation of existing archives.

Finally, I dealt with the challenges around the corporate ownership of all this information. Access, reuse, deletion, data loss, meta-archive rights, downtime and profit orientation were some of the challenges I flagged around the reliance of web based platforms, apps and services, especially for the citizen archivist. Towards the end of my lecture, I talked about how AI advancements, with pervasive and automated collection of personal and ambient information, streamed continuously to the cloud, combined with the development of the semantic web, could in the future lead to scenarios not too different from the AI depicted in Jonze’s ‘Her’, which I said was one of the most profoundly intelligent sci-fi films I had ever seen.

I linked this to the evolution of personal archives that were in their digital incarnation, perhaps more detailed that we could ever remember our lives to be, and what implications this would have for our lives and lifestyles.

View my presentation below or click here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s