The nature of the record in the age of the real time web

Science Fiction writer Bruce Sterling has posted a transcript of his February 6 talk to Transmediale 10 Atemporality for the creative artist. The talk investigates the impact of the real time web on all those cultural activities that depend in some way on narrative – including the writing of history.

”History books are ink on paper. They are linear narratives with beginning and ends. They are stories created from archival documents and from other books. Network culture is not really into that. Network culture differs from literary culture in a great many ways. And step one is that the operating system is an unquestioned given. The first thing you do is go to the operating system, without even thinking of it as a conscious choice.

Then there is the colossally huge, searchable, public domain, which is now at your fingertips. There are methods to track where the eyeballs of the users are going. There are intellectual property problems in revenue, which interferes with scholarship as much as it aids it. There is a practice of ‘ragpicking’ with digital material – of loops, tracks, sampling. There are search engines, which are becoming major intellectual and public political actors. There is ‘collective intelligence’. Or, if you don’t want to dignify it with that term, you can just call it ‘internet meme ooze’. But its all over the place, just termite mounds of poorly organized and extremely potent knowledge, quantifiable, interchangeable data with newly networked relations. We cannot get rid of this stuff. It is our new burden, it is there as a fact on the ground, it is a fait accompli.

There are new asynchronous communication forms that are globalized and offshored, and there is the loss of a canon and a record. There is no single authoritative voice of history. Instead we get wildly empowered cranks, lunatics, and every kind of long-tail intellectual market appearing in network culture. Everything from brilliant insight to scurillous rumor.

This really changes the narrative, and the organized presentations of history in a way that history cannot recover from.”

What are the implications of this for record keeping? If the writing of history as a single narrative becomes impossible, then is the attempt to keep a single narrative of a piece of work impossible and/or unnecessary too? Should we still try to create a file (electronic or paper) for every piece of work, that brings together all the significant documents and communications arising from that work?

In the same talk Sterling describes a new way of looking at history:

history is a story. And to write down the story of the fourteenth century, to just ask yourself – “what happened in the fourteenth century?” — is a very different matter from asking the atemporal question: “What does Google do when I input the search term ‘fourteenth century?

This is reminiscent of the switch we are witnessing in record keeping. A decade ago organisations were trying to keep good records of everything they did, to be able to tell the story of everything they did, to keep an organised narrative. Now the aim is reduced to being able to respond to e-discovery/ Freedom of Infomation/ Data Protection Subject Access requests.

Our traditional concept of a record is of a stable information resource: a file, sitting in a record store or archive, or in an electronic records management system. A file that stays unaltered and inviolate as it moves through time, a narrative waiting to be read and interpreted by different waves of colleagues, auditors and historians.

The e-discovery/freedom of information/subject access request is to ‘show us everything your systems know about the dismissal of employee y’ or ‘show us everything your systems know about the contract with company x’. The narrative only comes together when the request comes in. The answer to the question will change over time, as the organisation’s network and systems change, as the tools it has to search them change, as things drop off the network and are added to it. In the same way as Google’s answer to a search query on ‘the fourteenth century’ will change over time, as its algorithms changes, as the internet changes.

Even if an organisation has been able to keep a good file for a piece of work the e-discovery/freedom of information/subject access requestor will want to go beyond that file. It will want the organisation to dredge up material kept outside of that file that the requestor might find useful, advantageous or interesting.

The implication for records management is that we are in a transition away from managing static files towards managing shifting networks of information.

2 thoughts on “The nature of the record in the age of the real time web

  1. James

    what an interesting and timely post! Other disciplines, especially philosophy and literature, have long argued for the abolishment of meta-narratives and meta-theories in the name of postmodernism. Archivists like Steven Moss have also debated the role of archives as keepers of the one true history- only we records managers seem to stubbornly stick to an already vague definition of what a records is. “Evidence of a business activity” can be anything depending on organisational context and is not really helpful anymore, I would argue. I think you are right, we need to get away from the file and look at how we can manage a dynamic and decentralised information environment. This will not be an easy task but we need to start revising our traditional concepts and methodologies soon.

  2. Hello James,

    Thanks for this intelligent and stimulating post.

    It calls for extensive thought and discussion, but alas! the time is not available to engage with it properly. So I’ll just proffer a couple of inadequate and sketchy comments.

    Firstly, I think that the frequently found emphasis on history as (only) narrative and story is lopsided – history is at least, if not more, concerned with analysis, some of it couched in literary but some in quantitative, data-heavy form. As Richard Evans points out, many works by professional historians are in fact quite indigestible if read as narrative. The narrow definition of history as rhetoric-laden narrative seriously undermines treatments such as Hayden White’s ‘The Content of the Form’, whatever one thinks of the overall thrust of his arguments.

    Given all that, however, it would be foolish to deny that the ‘networked world’ has brought very significant changes in both sources and the way they can be treated. Despite the primarily textual nature of the internet, archaeological and anthropological perspectives should be given equal importance with historical or literary perspectives, treating the web not only as text or intertext but as material and social culture.

    Secondly, when you write that

    “The narrative only comes together when the request comes in. The answer to the question will change over time, as the organisation’s network and systems change, as the tools it has to search them change, as things drop off the network and are added to it”

    it seem to me that this is the very perspective that the Records Continuum model was born for – the record is always becoming, always at multiple levels of creation and use. And it is also true of good history, even narrative history: as M.I. Finley observed, the answers you get from the sources depend on the questions you ask, and the questions vary over time and space, with differing societal and individual preconceptions and interests.

    Anyway, you’ve certainly given me something more useful than the ‘Metro’ to mull over on the bus home!



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