Update or Die: How to Keep Your Digital Works Alive

Six hands-on tips on how to keep digital content alive for a long time.

We are increasingly numerous to witness the disappearance of digital content. “Will our future historians look back, marvelling at the amount of anthropological data we were simultaneously creating and destroying?” ask the authors of the Future Today Institute’s 2018 trends report.

As information and communication technologies constantly evolve— sometimes at lightening speed—thousands of digital works based on devices, technologies or programming languages that are now deemed obsolete are disappearing, often without leaving trace of their past existence.

For example, Adobe Flash, considered ten years ago as THE application to create multimedia content online, will no longer be updated as of 2021. Adobe justifies its decision by the development and arrival at maturity of new standards such as HTML5, WebGL and WebAssembly.

Creating and producing digital works comes with a host of challenges and ensuring the long-term preservation of a project therefore often becomes a secondary issue.

To make sure your digital works stay alive, whether in their initial form or as future iterations, here are six hands-on tips.

1. Create for the future

Many artists and researchers believe that creators should, at the outset of the creative process, keep in mind that their work will need to be preserved over the long term. “Creation shouldn’t be interrupted by preservation, but preservation should go within creation,” explains Nancy McGovern, an expert on digital preservation and the vice president of the Society of American Archivists.

Director and researcher Sandra Rodriguez illustrates the situation with the example of choosing a type of paint when painting a picture. One may opt for acrylic paint because it produces brighter colours, but it is less durable than oil paint.

To quote African artist Jechumba, we need to shift from creating for now to creating for the future.

2. Document all of the aspects of a work

Patricia Falcão, who oversees the preservation of media works for Tate’s museums, explains that documentation is what foremost makes all other preservation strategies possible: emulation, updating and archiving.

Therefore, no aspect of a given work must be neglected: its content, obviously, but also its code, the final result as well as the required manipulations to “play” the work in question.

It’s one of the main lessons learned by director Vincent Morisset after restoring one of his very first works, the interactive puppet ZIG. He realized that he was missing something important: the video recording of his hand movements as he handled the puppet.

Seeing as Morisset knew his project well, he was able to restore it. However, the update would have been much more difficult had someone else taken care of it.

To facilitate this documentation work, and ultimately ensure the survival of a work, American collective Rhizome developed Webrecorder, a program that records both a webpage and the user’s interactions with it, allowing you to create an offline copy of an interactive work.

3. Resort to open source

Beyond documentation, director Brett Gaylor suggests that digital creators opt for open source, a practice that not only provides universal access to a work’s content and source code, but also enables free distribution. By granting access to a project’s ‘ingredients’, “it makes possible for the work to live on,” he explains. “Not necessarily how it looked like at first, but the spirit of the work.”

4. Have basic knowledge of computer programming

Director Vincent Morisset adds that knowledge—albeit rudimentary—of computer programming can greatly contribute to the preservation of a given work. Repeatedly, when one of his works became inaccessible, “I was able to change the code or migrate it to another place,” he explains.

5. Choose your tools and technologies wisely

Using a start-up’s free service to host your content may seem to represent a good move. However, director Brett Gaylor discovered at his own detriment the risks associated with such partnerships.

One of his very first projects, Homeless Nation, presented a series of videos hosted on the now defunct Blip.TV. After having declared bankruptcy, the platform closed overnight and all of the Homeless Nation videos disappeared along with it...  “Luckily, I had friends at Internet Archive and I was able to find the videos!” Gaylor explains with relief.

6. Consider the rights issue upstream

Finally, when it comes to preservation, one must necessarily take into consideration the issue of the rights surrounding the use of the presented content as well as user-generated content and data.

How can the right balance be struck between the right to privacy and preservation in the case of works such as Bear 71, in which users are invited to use their webcams to film themselves, or Do Not Track, in which users are invited to share personal information?

There exists no perfect answer to this question, but the question nevertheless remains central and must be raised as early as possible during a digital creation project.

Expert advice on preserving digital content

Here are some useful tips shared by Sergiu Raul Suciu, who takes care of the preservation of digital works for the National Film Board of Canada (NFB).

Good front-end practices:

  • Choose technologies and services that are well established in the community and supported by major players
  • Choose video coding formats that are natively compatible with web browsers and viewers
  • Limit dependencies to the greatest extent possible; if they are unavoidable, download all required dependencies and embed them in the application

Good back-end practices:

  • Avoid content management systems (CMS) or proprietary frameworks that force you to pay each time you make an update
  • Opt for programming languages and operating systems that have accessible resources to help with maintenance and updates.
  • Give priority to well-established technologies over cutting-edge technologies
  • Opt for the simplest works, which are often those that will prove to be the most viable over the long term (the more a work depends on other services and platforms, the more vulnerable it will be)
  • Reuse the same tried and tested technologies for several projects

It is also essential to conserve the source assets, audiovisual and software code. These assets must be made part of a living archive were the hard drives used for storage are verified regularly. Store and forget does not exist in the digital world, explains Suciu.

You can also read the excellent article written by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer on the best practices to adopt before, during and after the creation of a digital work.

The ideas and quotes presented in this article were heard and collected during the Digital Memory conference held in Montreal in May 2017. The conference’s different sessions were filmed and the recordings can be viewed on the YouTube channel of the Phi Centre.

Gaëlle Engelberts
A former television journalist at Radio-Canada, Gaëlle Engelberts is the editorial coordinator for CMF Trends. In parallel to her research and editing work with the Canada Media Fund’s Industry and Market Trends team, she recently completed a master’s degree in communication at Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) focused on new narrative forms in journalism and documentary, namely interactive webdocumentaries and serious games.
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