Stepping away from the shiny

There is a certain kind of digital project that strikes terror and dismay into the hearts of digital preservationists everywhere. Not a one of us hasn't seen many exemplars. They make me myself feel sad and tired.

They're projects that, no matter their scholarly or design merit, are completely unpreservable because they were built from unsustainable tools, techniques, and materials. What's worse, even a cursory examination with an eye to sustainability would have at least signaled a problem.

It's not the unpreservability so much. It's the obliviousness that makes me hurt inside.

For various reasons, the digital humanities are particularly prone to this sort of thing. Scientists do use unsustainable tools, but often they haven't a choice (thank you for the lock-in, instrument manufacturers) and most times they're at least aware of the problem.

Humanists, on the other hand, will pick up whatever tool seems good to them without even asking themselves whether the result will last past the lifespan of the tool. Then they bring the resulting binary CD-ROM or Flash-based website or whatever to the library with beaming smiles, and are shocked to find out that the library can't help them.

Proprietary tools and formats are often quite shiny. I remember HyperCard well, and so may you. In its day, there wasn't anything shinier. The problem is, following the shiny to the exclusion of all other considerations dooms a shiny project to be less shiny a year later, hardly shiny at all five years later, and completely inaccessible and unusable five years after that.

(I do not kid. Historians and sociologists of early digital culture are deeply distressed at how much "HyperCard art" nearly fell out of reach forever, though there are now emulators capable of dealing with much of it.)

There are better ways to proceed. They may well be less shiny at first, but the secret is that shiny can almost always be added to solid sustainable data later on, through mashups or interface redesign or whatever takes your fancy. Once its platform is thoroughly obsolete, though, a project may well not be rescuable in any form. Worse yet, piling otherwise-sustainable raw materials into an unsustainable platform destroys the sustainability of those raw materials, too. I've seen it happen!

So please, step away from the shiny and think.

(Thanks to @pseudonymTrevor and other Twitter friends for inspiring this post, and possibly other ones—I am still pondering the intersection of "never done"-ness and sustainability.)


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See also the early 1980's BBC Domesday project that was based on a proprietary microcomputer and storage medium and was completely inaccessible less than a decade after it was compiled. Fortunately, the big brains were able to recover the data:

By David Fiander (not verified) on 05 Nov 2009 #permalink