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Day of Digital Archives: McLuhan “The [digital] medium is [no longer] the [only] message.” 2011/10/06

Posted by nydawg in Digital Archives, Digital Archiving, Digital Preservation, Education, Information Technology (IT), Media.
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Day of Digital Archives October 6, 2011 Marshall McLuhan: “The Medium Is the Message?” or “The [digital] medium is [no longer] the [only] message.”

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of “the new spokesman of the electronic age”, Marshall (Understanding Media) McLuhan, and digital archivists should take a moment to think about how media, digital and analog, hot and cool, and in many different formats change our jobs, lives and responsibilities. With threats of technological obsolescence, vendor lock-in, hardware failure, bit rot and link rot, non-backwards compatible software, and format and media obsolescence, digital archivists need a system to accurately describe digital objects and assets in their form and function, content, subject, object and context. If we miss key details, we run the risk of restricting access in the future because, for example, data may not be migrated or media refreshed as needed. By studying and understanding media, digital archivists can propose a realistic and trustworthy digital strategy and implement better and best practices to guarantee more efficiency from capture (and digitization or ingest) and appraisal (selection and description), to preservation (storage) and access (distribution).

Over the last ten, forty, one hundred and twenty thousand years, we have crossed many thresholds and lived through many profound media changes– from oral culture to hieroglyphic communications to the alphabet and the written word, and from scrolls to books, and most recently transiting from the Atomic Age (age of atoms) to the Information Age (era of bits). While all changes were not paradigm shifts, many helped shift currencies of trust and convenience to establish new brand loyalties built on threats of imminent obsolescence and vendor lock-in. As digital archivists, we stand at the line separating data from digital assets, so we need to ensure that we are archiving and preserving the assets and describing the content, technical and contextual metadata as needed.

Today, Day of Digital Archives, is a good day to consider Marshall McLuhan’s most famous aphorism, “The medium is the massage,” and update it for the Information Age. In a nutshell, McLuhan argues that “the medium is the message” because an electric light bulb (medium) is pure information (light). He goes on to state: “This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the “content” of any medium is always another medium. The content of writing is speech, just as the written word is the content of print, and print is the content of the telegraph.” (Understanding Media, 23-24) But in the Information Age, the [digital] medium is [no longer] the [only] message. Every born-digital or digitized file is a piece in an environment in which it was created or is accessed, and needs to be described on multiple planes to articulate technical specifications (hardware & software versions, operating system, storage media, file format, encryption) as well as its content. For archivists and librarians describing content, the medium and the message, many use MARC, DublinCore and VRA Core are guides, but PBCore provides a richly defined set of technical, content and Intellectual Property metadata fields to ensure all stakeholders, including IT staff will be able to efficiently access, copy or use the asset (or a copy).

With More Product, Less Process [MPLP] the prevailing processing strategy, many libraries, archives and museums encourage simplified descriptions to catalog digital objects, but these generic descriptions (e.g. moving image, video or digital video) do not provide the most critical information to ensure future users can watch the video online, on an iPad or with a DVD player (or VHS player or film projector). Until digital objects and assets are described in their granular, multi-dimensional digital splendor, we are hurting ourselves and archival access in the future. Once we understand that the medium and message are split into many different categories, we can focus descriptive metadata on critical access points (subject, format or function), and we will not need to panic and makework every time a new [moving image] format [or codec] gains temporary popularity. With better description and critical appraisal at ingest, digital archivists will understand that the medium, the message and the content, subject, structure, form, format and other aspects are all integral parts. At that point we will start to change the commonly-held mindset that “The [digital] medium is [no longer] the [only] message.”