Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

University of Maryland

Robot Historians

This is the text of a brief (5-minute) talk I delivered today at the Personal Digital Archiving 2013 conference as part of a panel entitled “All Your Bits Aren’t Belong To Us: Opportunities and Challenges of Personally Revealing Information in Digital Collections.” Fellow panelists were Cal Lee, Naomi Nelson, and Kam Woods. The ideas could bear some further development—five minutes isn’t a lot of time—but the basic objective was to disrupt the linear donor-archivist axis that predominates in these discussions and instead consider the issue in the context of a networked landscape populated by human and non-human actors alike. I get there via Jerome McGann, Manuel DeLanda, big data, and a touch of OOO.

Three years ago, in this very room, Clifford Lynch, closing out a Mellon-funded conference on Digital Forensics and Cultural Heritage, the first ever of its kind, stood where I am standing and asked “How many of you would like to be the target of a forensic investigation?” The implication was clear: by putting ourselves in the shoes of our donors, we’d immediately come back down to earth and gain some perspective on just what digital forensics means for how we process and steward the collections entrusted to us.

Most discussions to date of the place of ethics in cultural heritage applications of digital forensics posit just such a negotiation between donor or originator, and archivist. This is certainly the case in the CLIR report we published in the aftermath of that meeting. In the ideal circumstance, the donor communicates his or her wishes and intentions, and the archivist does his or her professional utmost to see them through. In the few minutes I have today I want to speak on behalf of the scholar, or patron of those collections. “Scholarship,” notes Jerome McGann, “is a service vocation. Not only are Sappho and Shakespeare primary, irreducible concerns for the scholar, so is any least part of our cultural inheritance that might call for attention. And to the scholarly mind, every smallest datum of that inheritance has a right to make its call. When the call is heard, the scholar is obliged to answer it accurately, meticulously, candidly, thoroughly.” What is notable about this statement from McGann, apart from its characteristic passion and urgency, is the notion, subtly rendered, that data themselves—some bit, some shard, some small thing forgotten—has the potential, and indeed the right, to “make its call,” that the very stuff and matter of the cultural record is itself vested with agency in this negotiation. Scholarship is thus a vocation in the service of the inanimate. Not just the memory and shades of Sappho and Shakespeare, but their irreducible physical remainder.

To elevate the inanimate to a position of privilege in a conversation about ethics may seem perverse. Yet we live in a moment when machines are also actors, not figuratively but operationally, as constituents of the new everyday. Our philosophies tell us so, whether the networks of Bruno Latour or the “machines speaking to machines” once posited by Felix Guattari and realized now in our most quotidian interactions with the World Wide Web. Or our key chain’s car fob. Two decades ago, in the preface to a book entitled War in the Age of Intelligent Machines, Manuel DeLanda posited a robot historian who would excavate the so-called machinic phylum for evidence of the clockwork past amid the sentient data grids of our near future. Today, automated agents “crawl” the Web, mining, scraping, and harvesting; and sometimes we deploy text files called “robots” to ward against them. A new movement in philosophy, speculative realism or object-oriented ontology, enjoins us to abandon “correlationist” worldviews—the notion that experience is only meaningful when aligned with the human consciousness and sensorium—and ask instead “what it’s like to be a thing?” A shoelace? A shovel? A pressing of Jack White’s “Sixteen Saltines” single?

Objects and our relations to them change over time. All objects, over time, eclipse human agents in their primacy. Digital objects merely accelerate the process. Our hard drives leverage engineering of unthinkable complexity to inscribe signals irrespective of whether they are the product of human users or (as is nearly always the case, statistically) the churn of the operating system. They do this many thousands of times a second, at something near the nano-scale. The durations and density of a bitstream thus bear little relevance to the human sensorium. In a book I published a little while back I termed this the forensic imagination. I invoked the brilliant maverick artist and cognitive scientist Michael Leyton for his contention that we are prisoners not of the past, but of the present—meaning that, in his words, “all cognitive activity proceeds via the recovery of the past through objects in the present” (2). That is the scholar’s vocation. As text mining and similar techniques are brought to bear on collections of cultural heritage data, we will “read” not just at the level of individual datum, but will seek to infer, to triangulate, to extrapolate, and individuate. Data will inevitably be loosed from its moorings to particular historical personages. This is the true realization of DeLanda’s robot historian—not some anthropomorphic iron giant, but the sense-making algorithms of social and semantic computing at scale. The bitstream that is consigned to a dark archive out of respect for an individual donor’s wishes may hold the key for unlocking patterns of knowledge that are hopelessly opaque or oblique when considered on the scale of mere human agency. So let us bear that in mind too when we talk of ethics and donors. The robot historian of my title is the brute-force implementation of that which McGann once termed “the scholar’s art.”

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