Over the weekend I came across a (portion?) of an article from Kirk Huffman about digital modern technology and traditional heritage collections that I believe was a must to post as soon as possible. The text below might be found on the ICH Courier Online: Intangible Cultural Heritage Courier of Asia and the Pacific Website, although it’s tough to tell.
Nevertheless, the text is quite intriguing and is a terrific reminder to all of us in charge of safeguarding cultural heritage. If we are digitizing materials such as documents, photos, films, and audio, do not throw away the originals!
Modern digital technology is a useful tool for the listing of and work on cultural heritage, but it does have disadvantages as well. First of all, it should not be confused with ‘the real thing’, which is living culture (i.e. ongoing traditional cultural practices). The best way to ensure that culture, and intangible culture, survives, is to make sure that it is passed on to the next generation in the proper way. If you are from an oral culture, then it should be passed on orally. That is normal. ‘Digitizing’ it, etc, is useful and can be so in cultural renewal/re-awakening/re-vitalization and can also be seen as a safety back-up measure. It does have, though, the advantage – or disadvantage – of making that cultural information potentially more easily available worldwide through the internet.
Therein lies, however, one of the dangers of this wondrous modern technology. It has the possibility of making free for everyone cultural information that may not necessarily be free to openly distribute. Many Melanesian – and Aboriginal – cultures, for example, have highly-developed levels of knowledge access prohibitions and secrecy which need to be protected. It may therefore not be in the interests of those particular cultures to have much of their cultural information put in digital form. Once it is put in electronic form, moreover, it will never be completely safe, in spite of what the technocrats may tell you.
Many foreign academics may say that such and such a digitization project is being done to ‘benefit the creator communities’. In some cases this may be true and could be very worthwhile, but one should also bear in mind that most ‘creator communities’ in, say, Melanesia, may have very limited access to electricity and the digital world, if any at all. The spread of mobile phone technology throughout Melanesia is rapidly changing aspects of this situation, but poses real problems for protection of traditional knowledge. In general, digital approaches to culture, at least at this point in history, tend to currently benefit foreign art and cultural researchers – and art dealers – just as much, if not more-so than various creator communities.
Even in electronic form, the information may not be as ‘permanent’ as the digital industry would like one to believe. Libraries, archives, photo, film and sound collections that have been digitized are easy to work with, but periodically will have to be digitally ‘upgraded’ (so that the files are still readable) as new formats take over. Many Pacific museums and cultural centers may not regularly be able to afford the time, the expertise and expense of doing this, time after time, ‘until the end of time’, so to speak. It is hard – and will be increasingly expensive – work.
There is also the little-talked-about problem of digital ‘loss’/’rot’/’bleed’, where the edges of the digital riches being upgraded each time suffer a certain amount of damage. After a number of centuries, this loss may be increasingly noticeable. If the ‘original’ document is, say, a rare 13th century parchment, it will still be just about the same (if properly looked after). No-one yet knows if the same will be able to be said about digital data 800 years in the future. Sadly, much of it may have vanished not just through digital upgrade problems but also through the fact that the institutions responsible for the digital collections may have disappeared or collapsed themselves. Don’t forget, ‘even Google and Facebook will not be around forever’!
Most modern civilizations don’t seem to last that long, either (but traditional oral cultures do tend to outlive and outlast the modern ones – if only the modern ones will let them alone!).