In the 21st century, digitization cannot merely be considered a simple process of taking an analogue object and turning it into digital form, it’s not a simple project that disappears once it has fulfilled its purpose. It is much more than that. We could call it a trend, but that would take away part of its value and purport. Digitization is a fact; it is the status quo of the cultural world. In a world where the Internet is ubiquitous in human life, where accessibility is not a question, but a requirement in all spheres of human activity, creating digital copies of artefacts, man-made objects, even buildings and historical sites, is not merely a requirement, but a necessity.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary gives the following definition of the term digitize: “to change (information or pictures) to digital form.” (Merriam-Webster) While it does mention, that it is a simple definition of the word, it does seem slightly misleading. It has this sense of intrusiveness, that through the process of digitization, you change the original object. Digitization is less about changing something, and more about preserving it, about making it available and easy to analyse for a larger audience than the original. However, this does not mean that the process is flawless, that in all its aspects, it is all pros and no cons, that it can basically do anything. Beside all the positive sides to it, there are certain limits to digitization, and in the next few paragraphs I shall try to outline certain parts that are worrying, that need to be optimized and certain aspects that in our time we might not be able to fix.
Firstly, there is the question of the materiality of an object. Upon discussing the process of digitizing certain diaries from the period of the Holocaust, in the article entitled Exploring the Limits of Digitization, Klinger argues that objects are more than their mere physical attributes, that “each one carries meaning imbued with the events of the Holocaust and the experiences of those who suffered, which goes beyond its material reality. How the object was used and damaged during the war years–through being hidden, through use, or through neglect–are important parts of the story it has to tell.” (Klinger) When Elizabeth Edwards talks about the ‘objecthood’ of photographs, in Material beings: objecthood and ethnographic photographs, she draws attention to the fact that “experience of the image component alone is not to be confounded with the experience of the meaningful object, just as experience of the material cannot be confounded with or reduced to experience of the image.” (Edwards) This creates a dilemma for the person responsible for digitizing any work of art or artefact: how, if at all possible, can one render the materiality of it in the digital format? Can the experience of holding a weathered, torn diary that belonged to a soldier in World War 2, that describes the horrors of war and actually shows marks of it in and on the actual booklet, ever be translated into the ever so objective language of binary code? Can it ever be replicated in digital form, as “what is written on a page is distinct from the page itself and the relationship of the page to the whole object, and the other incorporates the physical nature of the document as an important conveyor of historical information”? (Klinger)
Here is where the second question arises, that of the emotional bond that we human beings have to certain objects, or even certain places, the historical or sentimental value that these might carry that are connected to the object’s biography. The previous dilemma may possibly be solved by creating descriptive metadata or a 3D model, or even curating the object in a way that might transmit the message carried by the object itself. Sadly, there is still no way that we can translate or recreate the physical sensation of touching a century-old diary or even the smell of an old book which might be the first edition of our favourite novel. On the one hand, “digitization permits an expansive degree of interactivity between user and information” (Brennen and Kreiss), as when we view an online collection of digitized photographs, we might be able to zoom in and analyse them in their smallest detail, and read the metadata which may or may not be descriptive enough to understand its history. On the other, to render the sensation that these items might invoke in each individual viewer if looking at these in real life, might be one of the unsolvable problems of digitization. There is another question that relates to the fact that digital copies of real life objects might not carry the same emotional weight as their original counterparts, and that is, whether or not the original loses some of its own value or significance once it becomes just another item in the endless mass of data available worldwide?
Having mentioned the endless mass of data that is accessible to people everywhere on the globe, I must mention a pressing concern that is also connected to the limits of digitization. Thwaites argues that according to many researchers, there is “an urgent situation around the world, that digital heritage is vanishing or disappearing faster than actual physical heritage of all kinds. How can this be and why is it happening at such an alarming rate? Mostly it is happening due to inappropriate standards, a lack of understanding and in some cases just a rush to capture, and digitize, in order to ‘‘save’’ it before it is gone, often resulting in the opposite result.” (Thwaites) In a diagram in the same article, he highlights that, while stone structures last for thousands of years, paper artefacts for several centuries, magnetic/ optical formats, like CDs and DVDs for mere decades, encoding might last even less. (Thwaites) Digitization projects can be quite expensive, and the process doesn’t, or shouldn’t, end with the scanning of a photograph or using a DSLR camera to capture the pages of a crumbling book. In order to ensure that such a project will survive and it will be available for generations to come, it requires immense amount of resources and time, the dedication of people and continuous updates of the database or online resource it is stored and published on. It is a complex process that usually involves a transdisciplinary team who is responsible for digitizing, curating and developing a resource for the items to be digitized, to mention only a few of the steps. Digitization can indeed help with preserving and sharing cultural heritage, but at the same time, there is no assurance that projects, even very successful ones, will live to see the next (few) decade(s), as the number of such endeavours grow by day and the masses of data increases with each passing second.
However, there is hope in these remarkable projects, as “many researchers and media artists around the world are working to find better ways to ‘‘digitize’’ our global cultural heritage sites and artefacts before they disappear forever. Technology advances faster than we can sometimes keep up with it. This double-edged sword provides us with the tools to create ever more engaging representations, while at the same time it creates challenges for the exhibition, access and preservation of digital heritage works.” (Thwaites) There are definitely limits to what digitization can render and achieve, it might not be able to transmit the same kind of message as the original counterpart, it might not be able to invoke the same reaction in the viewer, but it definitely offers a wider range of people the opportunity to access and learn from and about these artefacts, thus sharing knowledge across the globe, not to mention the new era of Virtual Reality and it’s the exciting prospects it might lead to.
Brennen, Scott, and Daniel Kreiss. “Digitalization and Digitization – Culture Digitally.” N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.
“Merriam-Webster.” N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.
Edwards, Elizabeth. “Material Beings: Objecthood and Ethnographic Photographs -.” Visual Studies 17.11 (2002): 67–75. Print.
Klinger, Jane E. “Exploring the Limits of Digitization.” Text. N.p., 12 Mar. 2015. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.
Thwaites, Harold. “Digital Heritage: What Happens When We Digitize Everything?” Visual Heritage in the Digital Age. Ed. Eugene Ch’ng, Vincent Gaffney, and Henry Chapman. Springer London, 2013. 327–348. link.springer.com. Web. 15 Oct. 2016. Springer Series on Cultural Computing.