Preserving our digital heritage

The rise of the internet has profoundly changed our society. The net is now an integral part of our everyday lives, enabling us to share vast amounts of data. Unfortunately, the unique nature of many data formats, combined with rapid technological advances, mean that many digital creations are at risk of being lost. In 2016, Amsterdam Museum therefore teamed up with the Waag Society, Sound and Vision (the institute for media culture) and the University of Amsterdam to launch a project called De Digitale City Herleeft ('The Digital City Resurrected') aimed at preserving, curating and reconstructing our digital heritage. However, protecting our rich electronic inheritance isn't just for academics and specialists. You can play a part as well. Tjarda de Haan is a web archaeologist, creative director and proprietor of Bits and Bytes United and one of the people behind The Digital City project. And Tjarda has been talking to us about how you can preserve your personal heritage, the importance of web archaeology and the future.

Uppermost stratum

"You can think of data as a layer of soil: the topmost archaeological stratum, which we excavate using digital trowels and brushes in the form of scripts. Web archaeology is a new field of e-culture, dedicated to the recovery and reconstruction of relatively modern (born digital) artefacts, lost in the recent past. Both the equipment and the methods we use to dig up and piece together the remnants of our digital past are very new and still developing fast," explains Tjarda de Haan, historian, creative director and web archaeologist. Our digital heritage is very vulnerable, threatened by continuous technological advancement, the withdrawal of support for outmoded systems and the failure of aging hardware. "Paper is much easier to conserve that digital data," Tjarda continues. "That might sound surprising, given that we live in a digital society, but it's a fact. UNESCO has been highlighting the enormous historical value of our digital heritage since 2003. Data aggregations represent unique sources of human knowledge and expression. And, if we aren't careful, a large part of contemporary culture is going to be lost to future generations. Because web archaeology is still in its infancy, it's vital that we raise awareness of the risk of 'digital amnesia': the loss of data as a result of technological change and the disposal of old data carriers and hardware."

dds-publicdomain

The Digital City Resurrected is a project set up to promote interest and involvement in web archaeology. About seven years ago, Amsterdam Museum asked Tjarda to make their website future-proof. "When I got to work on the site, I soon realised that, to get the public involved, it was vital for the museum's on-line collection to be accessible from the website," Tjarda recalls. "Public access engages people by enabling them to view and share your best exhibits." That soon led to the idea of incorporating 'born digital' material - creations originated in digital form. And The Digital City seemed like the obvious place to start.

The Digital City Resurrected

Established in 1994, The Digital City was one of the world's first virtual societies. Whereas the internet had previously been available almost exclusively to universities, corporations and government bodies, The Digital City opened it up to the general public. Its creators made use of cutting edge technology to build a visionary on-line community. However, despite great success and rapid expansion, The Digital City came to an end in 2001. Data collected and shared by thousands of community members was seemingly lost when The Digital City was taken off line. Knowing that made Tjarda and the project team more determined than ever to find out all they could about The Digital City, and to unearth as many of its artefacts as possible. "We knew that the website had long since been taken down, meaning that the excavation would involve digging down quite a way, which had rarely been done before," Tjarda recounts. "At the outset, our aim was simply to bring this one particular historical monument back to life. However, we soon saw that the project had more profound social and scientific value. What was needed was a sustainable way of reconstructing, conserving, opening up and providing access to web history for academics and the general public."

Grave diggers' gift

Finding a way to do that became the team's mission. They got together with Marleen Stikker – former virtual mayor of The Digital City and Director of the Waag Society – and organised a Grave Diggers' Party. "All the city's former residents were invited and encouraged to bring along any old material that they might be able to locate. People turned up with bits of code, old HDDs, servers and manuals. At the gathering, our engineers immediately started trying to extract data from the dusty old servers and system backups. While that was going on, we also got the former residents to share their personal recollections with us, to build up a picture of what mattered to the community and how it worked," remembers Tjarda. Everything discovered at the Grave Diggers' Party went on display, leading to an exciting new find, 'the freeze': three DLT tapes with precise details of everything the city had to offer. A visionary gift from The Digital City itself to mark its second birthday. However, it was a year before the freeze tapes could be successfully read, with the help of the University of Amsterdam's Computer Museum. The project team ultimately made two reconstructions of The Digital City: a replica and an emulation. The replica was built from scratch using modern techniques, leaving out personal data about the residents. The emulation was created using old code and is available exclusively for academic research. "We're currently working with Sound and Vision to permanently archive the two reconstructions and the data we unearthed," says Tjarda. "That's quite a challenge: how do you keep alive a dynamic entity like The Digital City? Making snapshots of the kind preserved in web archives wouldn't do it justice."

De Digitale Stad herleeft

Your personal heritage

Web archaeology isn't just about unearthing digital artefacts; it's also about rebuilding the virtual past and making it accessible. The public can now visit a museum and see The Digital City the way it used to be, and the web archaeologists of the future will be able to research this unique virtual monument in Sound and Vision's e-depot. However, it isn't only experts like Tjarda who can preserve our digital heritage. Everyone can contribute, including you. As co-author of the Do It Yourself Handboek voor Webarcheologie ('Do-It-Yourself Web Archaeology Manual'), Tjarda has set out everything you need to know to archive or reconstruct your own dynamic digital content.  

Here are a few of her tips:

  • If you've got things on a hard drive and you think that your computer might fail, make good copies and disc images. A disc image is an identical copy of everything on your computer. It preserves the lot, including the metadata. Check that your data is backed up properly by comparing pre-backup and post-backup checksums.

  • Before working on excavated data, copy it! Then work on the copy, so that the original file remains intact.

  • Always use smart file names, with dates, clear content descriptions and so on.

"I'd like to finish by making an appeal to everyone who reads this article," says Tjarda. "Have you got anything connected to The Digital City, maybe an old server or a hard disc, up in your attic or on a dusty shelf? If you have, please share it with us (https://hart.amsterdam/freeze), so that we can go on telling the story of our digital past."

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