By Elspeth Hunter

Whether intentional or not, Elizabeth Merritt’s blog post has left me with a sense of foreboding doom surrounding my own personal legacy. I am now wondering how I safeguard my Google Drive account, full of years of research and academic essays; my own private archive. What about my family snaps? What if Instagram deletes my fabulous personal portfolio of incredibly handsome sushi #foodporn? All these questions are enough to bring on a spiralling panic attack in sushi-food-dinner-chopsticks-80841millennials across the world. The age old desire to be remembered in years to come – to have made an impact on this insignificant planet – rears its arrogant head again as Merritt highlights the fragility of digital archiving and the issues of digital ownership, a topic highly reflective of the concerns of the modern youth and a world so consumed by fame, legacy and wealth.

Obviously, however, the predicament is deeper than merely promoting one’s personal legacy. The piece is sensationalist – as many blog posts are in an attempt to attract readers and devoted fans – but Merritt has touched upon a serious concern for museum professionals and academics alike.

Essentially, the blog draws on the issue of accessibility to cultural content and knowledge, a debate pioneered by the web-rogues of the 1990s in their efforts to transport knowledge from the grasp of private ownership, into Open Access Networks – click here for a quick (and light-hearted) history of the “metadata punk” – p.111 for English text. Our increasingly digitally-born cultural heritage is owned and tactfully disseminated by large-scale corporate companies, such as Google and Amazon. Merritt brings to light the potential for these organisations to tighten control and access, essentially becoming harbourers of knowledge. The blog entry extends this dilemma to the social arena, suggesting that if we do not curb our enthusiasm for intangible experiences over material ‘things’, and our stylish obsession with minimal living, a whole generation will be wiped out of the memory of cultural history, proving impossible to research in years to come. Will ours become a cultural dark age?

Merritt unnecessarily puts ownership of personal property on a pedestal, pitting private small-scale ownership of heritage goods against large-scale corporate ownership. I’m not suggesting that it is just that these wealthy capitalist conglomerates own so much of our cultural content, but only want to question whether ‘ownership’ is a thing of the past? Perhaps a remnant of our colonial tendencies? Our current concerns should address how we can remain as accessible, as neutral and as ‘property-free’ as possible in order to promote the dissemination and democratisation of knowledge across the globe for years to come. Indeed, our focus should be on finding an accessible middle-ground, rather than wanting to take back ownership of things which were traditionally claimed as personal property.

The question that she does not address, however, is what to do about this dilemma? How can we maintain public access to cultural goods when we entrust them to private organisations?

Perhaps here we must turn to the world of academia and research to glean answers to our questions concerning our impending obsolescence. Merritt’s blog post – without turning into a fully-fledged academic assessment of the field – can only provide us with questions to be answered, rather than the answers that we seek. It turns out there are systems in place that address these issues – David Anderson, writing in the journal for Communications of the ACM, that the digital dark age “will have to wait” – we can relax for now. Spurred on by the same concerns as Merritt, Anderson questions “what assurance do we have that in the next century, or the next millennium, historians will be able to access materials that were produced on machines, and software packages that have long ceased to exist?” Anderson’s focus is on positivity, reassuring us that “the global digital preservation community has been very active”, and pointing towards a handful of hopeful technological solutions to the possibility of a digital dark age.

Campaigns such as the #NoDigitalDarkAge have been initiated on Twitter by the executive director of the Digital Preservation Coalition in order to bring attention to digital heritage preservation. It is increasingly becoming apparent that to successfully archive and safeguard collections for future research, “harmonization” of archival methods is necessary across the heritage sector. A new development is being engineered by the E-ARK project hoping to address this issue by creating a pan-European system achieved by “synthesizing existing tools”.

Unfortunately, many professionals wanting to gain knowledge of current research on the future of digital heritage may struggle, as did I, with the techno-language. E-ARK’s mission is plain and simple. But their methods are mind-boggling, requiring a sophisticated level of IT knowledge to grasp these theories. At one point Anderson mentions how E-ARK will…

“pilot an end-to-end OAIS-compliant e-archival service covering ingest vendor-neutral archiving, and reuse of structure and unstructured data, thus covering both databases and records, addressing the needs of data subjects, owners, and users”

…For those wanting to merely glimpse into current academic progress surrounding the future of the archive, this is a confusing sentence – what does it mean to be OAIS-compliant? What is “ingest vendor-neutral archiving”? If these texts cannot be consumed by those working in GLAMs, how are we to spread current academic research-based knowledge or concerns? As shown by Merritt’s contribution, resolutions to the issues of a digital dark age are yet to reach the professional world in a tangible way – Merritt only being able to pose questions, rather than answers.

Whilst academic research into the potential of a digital black hole is inaccessible to the lay-man, we can take solace in the fact that it is rife, with solutions being developed to tackle preservation of digital culture on a world-wide scale. Talk of a digital dark age brings to mind the previous techno-apocalypse, namely the Millennium Bug, threatening a complete shutdown of all computer-devices at 00:00am on 1st January 2000. Merritt’s blog post epitomises the unnecessary apocalyptic hysteria which often accompanies progress and the unknowable capability of technological advancement. If the past is anything to go by, we can be confident that the fragility of our digital existence is in safe hands.




Works cited

Merritt, Elizabeth. (2016, October 6). The Future of Ownership. [Web blog]. Retrieved from

Anderson, David. (2015, Dec). Historical Reflections: The Digital Dark Age. Communications of the ACM, 58 (12), 20-23.


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