June 30, 2011

Perceiving Preservation

It’s not surprising that there is only a slight modulation in the difference in meaning between perception as a physical process (our eyes reading signals) and perception as mental process (our reading/interpretation of the world around us). The brain is so linked to the senses as our means of interacting with the world that we often lose the distinction between the two in our vocabulary usage. (And don’t worry, I’m not going to get all Blake-as-told-by-Huxley-as-told-by-Morrison here on you.)

There is a debate about which element has primacy in this relationship — whether the mental (our ideologies) colors what / how we see the world, or whether our limited field of vision (both literal and figurative [see, it’s difficult to separate out these terms!]) colors what our mental reading is (a la Sturges-as-told-by-Welles). I was looking back at a TED talk by Beau Lotto, founder of LottoLab and a science/art researcher, and was intrigued by the way he picked up this questions, sniffed it to check for ripeness, and viewed it from a different angle. In his talk he considers the evolutionary causality of visual perception on the brain, the idea that the brain is trained in how to see and interpret by the physics of light and vision.

In other words (just in case 16 minutes of his words were not enough…or too much), there are many ways in which variations in light, filters, shadows, distance, luminance, etc. can make very different objects appear indistinguishable or distort how we perceive them. This is what can commonly cause illusions or visual puzzles (or are the base of special effects in filmmaking). What Lotto suggests is that, when making a discernment in visual clues is beneficial to our survival, our brain learns to see through the filters somehow. When that discernment is of little or no benefit, the brain does not bother to learn and allows the default perception to remain.

In Lotto’s rubric, visual clues are information, and, to paraphrase him, there is no inherent meaning in information; it’s what we do with the information that creates meaning. This is the exact same point of view that needs to be applied to one’s understanding the importance of metadata, that meaningless yet all powerful pile of text. Metadata does nothing on its own, and seems like a bother to capture and maintain if it’s just going to sit there. But, with the right processes and applications defined and in place, there are innumerable possibilites for the social, educational, and business use of even the modest Y/N flag.

This would seem like the logical direction to take this weblogged rambling, but what struck me about Lotto’s talk is the feedback connection between the physical world and mental processes. This idea got me thinking about the assessment and preservation of magnetic media, things that, as objects, are very physical but that, because we require an intermediary (a playback deck) in order to see what is on the tape (or more correctly see the results of the signal that is stored on the tape, a signal that can have no discernable visual correlation to the image it produces) can seem very abstract and mystical.

Film is visual in its physical manifestation, as is its inspection. Every scratch, tear, splice, and oil stain on a film can be documented as well fading and shrinkage and what not — and the visual effect of these problems can be assumed or experienced even without playback — and this reassures us in the exact work that needs to be done to preserve the item. Video, partly because archives often lack playbacks decks in good (or any) condition and partly because those decks hide the tape/ cassette from our view and use unseen mechanisms/ processes (causing fear that something catastrophic and unpreventable will occur during playback), often has to rely on physical inspection of the cassette, tape, and annotations to make a preservation assessment of an item without actually viewing the content or the condition of the image produced. These physical clues can point to possible condition issues (some more reliable than others), though signs of condition issues don’t necessarily correlate to errors produced during playback.

Of course the simple answer here is, play everything back, which, yes, is the only true reliable way of 1) determining content of a tape and 2) determining the condition of the signal and resultant image/ sound. The simple question in answer to that answer is, Who has the 1) time, 2) money, 3) equipment to do that with every single item in a collection? Practically thinking, there has to be a more efficient way to process and assess collections. Messrs. Greene and Meissner have addressed this issue to a degree, but their discussion revolves entirely around paper collections and does not take into consideration the accessibility issues regarding audiovisual materials that make researcher-centric browsing much more difficult than leafing through a folder or box of letters.

What we need to do is change our view of a perceived lack of information attainable from certain analog media formats to a view of the value in what information is present or can be inferred, and that can be exploited for establishing strategies for planning, discovery, access, and the other necessary activities of archives. With the application of outside knowledge such the history and technical characteristics of video formats or typical production workflows, a box of mixed formats can shift from a jumble of plastics and worry to a clearer picture of potential production dates, priorities for reformatting, delineations of camera original versus production elements, ceiling targets for storage capacities and throughput, and more.

This still requires an item-level approach, but a quicker, more efficient one that also provides for improved collection management. The mediation between box-level and item-level processing for audiovisual material is still unresolved, but reformatting has to happen sooner than later, and even a basic item-level inventory supports planning for those efforts more practically and in a way that can better allay future costs — and looking down the road like that is yet another way we need to think about perceiving preservation efforts to help clarify the things we need to do today.

Joshua Ranger

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