Conservation image

Increasingly over the past 20 years, important cultural information has been recorded in digital formats. The enthusiastic use of this technology is logical, given the extraordinary ways it can be used and what it can reveal. However, the media used to store data can deteriorate within a decade, and computers and programs that read the data are likely to be obsolete in half that time.

This potential crisis poses two questions for the programs of the Getty: what are the best practices for capturing and storing cultural information, and what can we recommend as recording methods and media for use around the world?

The Getty Conservation Institute, the Getty Information Institute, and the Long Now Foundation of San Francisco are collaborating on a multiyear project to highlight the problems of preserving information in digital form and to consider possible solutions. After a year of background research, position papers, and online discussions, the project held its first major meeting February 8-10, 1998, at the Getty Center.

The meeting was designed to articulate the central problem and to clarify its current reach. The group, which included prominent individuals in the world of new media, began with the assumption that the problem can and must be solved. In the words of Stewart Brand of the Long Now Foundation, "Culture should be able to count on the continuity of digit-arrays as much as on stone arrays." The group agreed that instead of one problem, there are many, and that any solution is likely to have several components.

During two days of discussion, participants considered market forces that might contribute to the persistence or diminution of the problems, societal forces and trends, the unreasonably high expectations for the technology, the dearth of standards, and the speed of change in technology and culture. They set an agenda for research and discussed criteria to which solutions would need to conform. They also explored the ways in which this collaborative effort should proceed to effect the changes needed.

On the afternoon of February 10, the organizers invited press, local experts and interested professionals, Getty staff, and the general public for a briefing with the panel, moderated by Stewart Brand. Margaret Mac Lean of the Conservation Institute gave an example that demonstrated the importance of this issue: "The bright sides of the new technologies are many, and very exciting. On the darker side, a Buddhist monk in Korea is transcribing unique religious texts from wooden tablets into electronic form. He is thinking that this is the safe way to keep this ancient library safe. He assumes that someone is handling the problems of survival of the digital records. That isn't happening." Ben Davis of the Information Institute noted that "the new Getty Center has hosted this meeting for a very good reason. Digital technology has become so pervasive in the creation and preservation of human expression that long-term responsibility for its use is inherent in any new endeavor in the arts and humanities." A lively discussion ensued with the audience, and plans began to take shape for the follow-up from this meeting and for the next meeting in the series.


Meeting Participants

Stewart Brand
Co-organizer; founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder of the Well, cofounder of the Global Business Network, and author of How Buildings Learn (1994) and The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT(1987)

Margaret Mac Lean
Co-organizer; anthropologist/archaeologist; Special Initiatives, the Getty Conservation Institute

Ben Davis
Co-organizer; electronic communications expert, artist, writer; Program Manager, Communications, the Getty Information Institute

Howard Besser
Adjunct associate professor in the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California, Berkeley; coauthor of the meeting background paper

Doug Carlston
Cofounder and CEO of Broderbund Software

Brian Eno
Musician, artist, producer, philosopher

Danny Hillis
Developer of parallel processing; VP, Research and Development, the Walt Disney Company

Brewster Kahle
Inventor of the Wide Area Information Servers system (WAIS); now heads the Internet Archive

Kevin Kelly
Executive editor, Wired magazine; author of Out of Control (1994)

Jaron Lanier
Pioneered virtual reality; computer scientist, musician

Peter Lyman
University librarian and professor in the School of Information Management and Systems at the University of California, Berkeley; coauthor of the meeting background paper