In his article “Ordinary Plenty” Jeremy Keith looks at the value of the all digital stuff we make, and their ability to last or not.
Preservation is a topic dear to my heart, and one I have a lot of feelings about that I often have trouble putting to words. Thankfully, Jeremy thinks, writes, and talks a lot about this stuff, so I can usually just read along and nod.
As I was reading his article yesterday, something finally clicked for me. One of the arguments I often hear for why preservation isn’t that pressing is that “important things will get saved.” That and “who cares about saving status updates.”
And there is some truth to that. Sometimes things are culturally significant in the moment and have an immediate effect. An important artwork or statement, a technical or scientific achievement, and countless other things. These make the news and get documented. Things that don’t, fade away.
But do they make up the bulk of history? How much of the story of us and what we make do they cover? Many of the artists we consider relevant and influential today were never appreciated during their lifetime. And certainly not on a mass scale. Much of the art (in the broad sense) that rises to a larger cultural role does so only in retrospect. Once we’ve had time to see the influence and connective tissue fully grow.
Collectors of the world save things because they have a personal connection to them. They preserve what they love, and in time, likely pass those things down to another caretaker; sometimes another person or institution. But what about things we’ve lost? There is art out there we will never see because the timing was off. Hell, sometimes it’s just the rapid progress of formats and technical progress that makes us shortsighted.
I’m not saying that all creative works would rise to significance. But, I am saying that I feel too close to things in the moment to know what will or will not. Perhaps it’s not our job to decide what’s important right now. Instead, we’re the ones who save everything for those after us to sift through. Those future people, with their knowledge and context we can’t foresee, are the ones who trace the paths back to us.
So, yes, important things will get saved. But that doesn’t feel like a solid argument for how preservation happens.
Maybe those things weren’t saved because they were important. Maybe they were important because they were saved.
In order to write a history, you need evidence of what happened. When we talk about preserving the stuff we make on the web, it isn’t because we think a Facebook status update, or those GeoCities sites have such significance now. It’s because we can’t know.