even the digital is physical

Many of you will have already seen the news that the Internet Archive is preserving hard copies of each book they scan into their archive. Kevin Kelly’s recent piece likens this to the need for type specimen in biology:

Biologists maintain a concept call a “type specimen.” Every species of living organism has many individuals of noticeable variety. There are millions of Robins in America, for instance, all of them each express the Robin-ness found in the type of bird we have named Turdus migratorius. But if we need to scientifically describe another bird as being “like a Robin” or maybe “just a Robin” which of those millions of Robins should we compare it to?

Biologists solve this problem by arbitrarily designating one found individual to be representative and archetypical of the entire species. It is the archetype, or the “type specimen,” of that form. There is nothing special about that chosen specimen; in fact that’s the whole idea: it should be typical. But once chosen this average specimen becomes the canonical example that is used to compare other forms. Every species in botany and zoology has a physical type specimen preserved in a museum somewhere.

The Internet Archive, that marvel founded by Brewster Kahle, is not simply scanning books, but it is keeping a hard copy of each book as a backup, a type specimen that will allow us to recreate what a robin is, in Kelly’s words:

Brewster decided that he should keep a copy of every book they scan so that somewhere in the world there was at least one physical copy to represent the millions of digital copies. That safeguarded random book would become the type specimen of that work. If anyone ever wondered if the digital book’s text had become corrupted or altered, they could refer back to the physical type that was archived somewhere safe.

Kelly’s piece, as is signaled by its title, “When Hard Books Disappear,” is built around the idea extinction: we need type specimens because someday they will be all that we have left. The book is dying, Kelly tells us: “Hard books are on their way to extinction.”

But that’s not what Kahle is saying. The more interesting part of the story is not that hard copies of the books are being preserved, but that all copies of the books are being preserved. From Kahle’s announcement of the Internet Archive physical archive:

As the Internet Archive has digitized collections and placed them on our computer disks, we have found that the digital versions have more and more in common with physical versions. The computer hard disks, while holding digital data, are still physical objects. As such we archive them as they retire after their 3-5 year lifetime. Similarly, we also archive microfilm, which was a previous generation’s access format. So hard drives are just another physical format that stores information. This connection showed us that physical archiving is still an important function in a digital era.

It’s not just that physical archiving is necessary to the digital era, but that the digital is physical.

Not infrequently I hear folks referring to e-books as being immaterial, without physical presence or consequence. But that’s nonsense. They may not have the same physical presence as books do, but that doesn’t mean that they are made of nothing. The bits of data that make up their core run on hardware that can be held in your hand, that needs to be preserved, that ages and decays and changes. I cannot talk knowledgeably about the problems of digital preservation (problems that are real but that aren’t any more insurmountable than the preservation of books or paintings or buildings) and that isn’t my point here. What I am saying is that the digital is physical and the sooner everyone accepts that the sooner we can move on to more productive conversations about what that means for our present and future.

2 thoughts on “even the digital is physical

  1. Two quick comments:

    Is the idea of eventual extinction really endemic to a system of type specimens? As Kelly describes it, biologists select and archive type specimens not in order to preserve something that will otherwise disappear, but in order to introduce an element of abstraction into an otherwise unmanageable chaos of diversity and variations. By virtue of being archived, it also becomes a museum, of course (“ah, that’s what a robin lookED like”), but its primary purpose seems to be definition (“ah, that’s what a robin lookS like”). No? (What I’m saying is I don’t quite understand how he gets from type specimens to an argument about impending extinction.)

    Secondly, isn’t the digital also physical in the sense that data actually has a physical presence? Matt Kirschenbaum used to talk about this in the Folger seminar that Stallybrass & Chartier ran a couple of years ago. It’s not just that the objects that contain data are physical (hard drives, DVDs, etc.), but that data is as present and almost as traceable on/in those objects as letters are on a page.

  2. Excellent points. You’re right, and you push the point more clearly than I did: there isn’t anything that necessitates type specimens as being about extinction and preservation. It might be a side effect, but the intent seems to me to create a standard definition. The desire for extinction is all Kelly’s, and that’s what drives me nuts about that piece, and the way it’s been talked about. “Books are going extinct! If not now, soon!” *accompany with cheers or tears as appropriate* Kelly gets from one to the next because that’s who he is, but that’s no reason to take his word for it. Thanks for putting your finger on that transference more precisely.

    As for data having a physical presence, that makes sense. And Matt Kirschenbaum’s book has been on my to-read list for a very long time. I tend not to be particularly interested in that angle just because I’m not particularly interested in talking about letters that way–I like thinking about casting and metal and bits of type more than the physical presence of letters on the page. Although now that I’m thinking about it, I am also drawn to thinking about mise-en-page. Is there a data equivalent to that? In any case, just as I firmly believe that text doesn’t live in an immaterial ether, neither can data: both need to be made manifest in the physical in order for us to know them.

    (ps–huge thanks, Holger, for being the first to leave a comment on the new site and for making it such a rich one!)

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