Concepts of Digital Objects

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Concepts of Digital Objects

Digital Records and the Relational Objects of Yuk Hui Sebastian Rozenberg

Master’s thesis – Independent project

Main field of study: Archives and Information Science Credits: 15 hp

Semester/Year: Spring 2020 Supervisor: Erica Hellmer Examiner: Erik Borglund Course code: AK022A

Degree Programme: Master's Programme in Sustainable Information Provision (One Year)



The writings of Yuk Hui, bringing together technical and philosophical insights, provides new theory for the digital, something desired by many in archival research. The aim of this study is to assess the use of Hui’s theories on digital objects and web ontologies as a unifying theory for archival studies, looking at the concept of digital records in particular. Two types of ontology are needed in order to understand digital objects according to Hui:

(1) ontologies which relates to the technical language and hierarchies of knowledge representation, like metadata;

(2) Ontology, which is the question of Being in the tradition of Heidegger’s phenomenology, the understanding of what it is to be in the world. Both of these ontologies are needed to account for the nature of the digital object.

Further, digital objects are produced and constituted through their relations, which can be divided into discursive (technical and logical) and existential (the understanding of being in the world) relations. Digital objects must be approached both as technical formal entities, and as beings in the world. The first register is common, the second – more existential approach – is rarely applied. Using a metatheoretical and hermeneutic method, different conceptions of digital records are discussed, in order to find commonalities and possibilities in relation to Hui’s theory. The digital record as: a process of becoming, information as affordance, context, temporality and evidence are all related to and structured through the application of Hui’s perspective.

The thesis ends with the contribution of a possible redefinition of digital records: A digital record is constituted and concretised as material by discursive and existential relations, that taken together function as a persistent representation.

Further, Hui’s digital object theory is suggested as a structuring and unifying theory. In relation to digital records Hui’s theory on digital objects can function as a metatheoretical measure, and a method of critical reading.

Keywords: digital archives, digital objects, digital records, metatheory, Ontology, ontologies, phenomenology, philosophy, Yuk Hui.

Abstract (SV)

Yuk Hui för samman tekniska och filosofiska perspektiv och erbjuder ny teori för det digitala, något som ofta efterfrågas inom arkivvetenskapen. Syftet med denna studie är att applicera Huis teori om digitala objekt och webontologier som en förenande teori för arkivstudier, specifikt i förhållandet till konceptet digitala records. Två typer av ontologi behövs för att förstå digitala objekt enligt Hui: (1) ontologier som relaterar till tekniskt språk och hierarkiska kunskapsrepresentationer, så som metadata; (2) Ontologi som frågan om varat i fenomenologen Martin Heideggers bemärkelse; förståelsen av vad det är att vara i världen. Båda dessa ontologier behövs för att redogöra för det digitala objektets natur. Vidare produceras och konstitueras digitala objekt genom sina relationer, som kan delas upp i diskursiva (tekniska och logiska) och existentiella (förståelsen av att vara i världen) relationer.

Digitala objekt måste förstås både som tekniska formella entiteter och som varelser i världen. Det första perspektivet är vanligt förekommande medan det andra – mer existentiella förhållningssättet – sällan tillämpas.

Med hjälp av en metateoretisk och hermeneutisk metod diskuteras olika föreställningar om digitala records för att hitta likheter och möjligheter i relation till Huis teori. Digitala records som: en process av tillblivande,

information som affordance, kontext, temporalitet och bevis är koncept som relateras och struktureras genom tillämpningen av Huis perspektiv.

Uppsatsen bidrar med en möjlig omdefinition av digitala records: Ett digitalt record konstitueras och konkretiseras som materiellt genom diskursiva och existentiella relationer vilka, tillsammans, fungerar som en ihållande

representation. Vidare framhålls Huis teori för digitala objekt som en strukturerande och förenande teori. I relation till digitala records kan Huis teori om digitala objekt fungera som ett metatoretiskt mått och en metod för kritisk läsning.

Nyckelord: digitala arkiv, digitala objekt, digitala records, metateori, ontologi, ontologier, fenomenologi, filosofi, Yuk Hui.



1. Introduction 2

1.1 Related Research: The Concept of a Record 4

1.2 Problem and Objective 8

1.3 Method 9

1.4 Theory 11

1.5 Scope 12

1.6 Outline 12

2. Analysis 13

2.1 Digital Objects 13

2.1.1 Definitions and Reflections 13

2.1.2 Digital Objects According to Yuk Hui 20

2.1.3 Individuation, Ontologies and Relations 24

2.2 A Short Reflection on Digital Archives 33

2.2.1 Postcustodial Archives 35

2.3 Records 37

2.3.1 Basic Definitions 37

2.3.2 Digital Records 43

3. Discussion 56

3.1 (Re-)Defining Records with Yuk Hui 58

4. Summary 66

5. Conclusions 67

5.1 Further Research 68

Bibliography 69


1. Introduction

Several possible openings can be formulated for the work of this thesis. Partly through the example of Luciana Duranti’s introduction of the concept of Diplomatics into archival science close to thirty years ago. Duranti (1989) identified a lack of theoretical perspectives and frameworks in archival studies and called for ideas from other scientific fields to give new energy and edge to research in the subject. This 1 proved a successful experiment which continues to generate research and new methods. A second 2 opening is provided by the manifold articles and texts discussing and assessing the use of postmodern theories in archival science, a discussion driven by among others Terry Cook, Tom Nesmith and Eric Ketelaar, a tendency that also continues to shape aspects of archival studies. A third possible point of 3 departure are the statements of German media theorist Wolfgang Ernst about archives and the possible future of archives in a digital world. Ernst (2006) wants to reformulate archival theory for the digital field and find a new concept for describing collections of digital material, replacing archives. He is not 4 alone in this view of archives. New theory and theory building is in no way a new aspect of archival 5 studies, rather a constantly recurring theme over the last 30 years, spurred by new technologies and shifting circumstances. This thesis should not be understood as an attempt at making a contribution of the same magnitude, rather as work in the same tradition, aimed at clarifying the position of archives in digital environments. Yet another articulation of this can be found in an article by McKemmish and Piggott (2013). In a discussion on the limits and oppositions between personal and corporate archives – a question accelerated by our increasingly digital existence – they state:

[…] we would also argue that liberation from binary opposition mindsets is an essential prerequisite to building the overarching, inclusive, and unifying frameworks that are currently absent, and to developing holistic approaches to the appraisal, description, and accessibility of personal and corporate archives. 6

Duranti, ‘Diplomatics: New Uses for an Old Science’.


See Duranti, ‘From Digital Diplomatics to Digital Records Forensics’.


See Cook, ‘Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives’; Cook, ‘Archival


Science and Postmodernism’; Cook and Schwartz, ‘Archives, Records, and Power’; Ketelaar, ‘Cultivating Archives’; Ketelaar,

‘Archival Turns and Returns: Studies of the Archive’; Manoff, ‘Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines’; Nesmith,

‘Still Fuzzy, But More Accurate: Some Thoughts on the “Ghosts” of Archival Theory’’; Nesmith, ‘Seeing Archives’.

Ernst, ‘Dis/Continuities: Does the Archive Become Metaphorical in Multi-Media Space?,’ 112.


See De Kosnik, Rogue Archives. Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom; Berry, ‘The Post-Archival Constellation: The


Archive under the Technical Conditions of Computational Media’; Galloway, ‘What You See Is What You Get?’; Greene, ‘The Power of Meaning’; Hui, ‘Archivist Manifesto’; Lemieux, ‘The Future of Archives as Networked, Decentralised, Autonomous and Global’.

McKemmish and Piggott, ‘Toward the Archival Multiverse: Challenging the Binary Opposition of the Personal and


Corporate Archive in Modern Archival Theory and Practice,’ 143.


They see a need for an overarching and unifying theoretical framework for understanding archives in relation to the digital. This applies also to digital objects in archives as investigated by Christoph Becker (2018), who comes to the conclusion that conceptual frameworks for digital objects are increasingly important, arguing that digital objects function metaphorically , which I read as linguistically 7

conceptual. He also sees a lack of overarching and unifying frames for understanding archives in relation to the digital. Geoffrey Yeo dedicates most of his book Records, Information and Data (2018) to the question of how records can be understood conceptually, especially in relation to our current information culture. He demonstrates how records is a concept dependent on the social actions surrounding them, but also how there is much theoretical and conceptual work yet to be done, on questions regarding records and archives in the digital contemporary. With these tendencies and movements in mind the problem and research objective defined below have a natural place in contemporary research in archives.

The approach of this thesis is shaped by the theories of Yuk Hui, a contemporary philosopher from Hong Kong, now based in Berlin. Hui has a background in computer engineering, cultural theory, and philosophy at the University of Hong Kong and Goldsmiths College in London, with a focus on the philosophy of technology. Hui’s overarching effort is to “reread philosophy according to the question of technics” , technology essentially. In his writing he combines classical philosophy with 8 knowledge of programming languages, computer science and technological philosophy, framed

variously as phenomenology and postmodern theory. For this thesis we will mainly turn to his book On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016), which attempts to understand digital objects philosophically, as relational objects. I see a clear opening for a reading and interpretation of records in digital

environments understood as relational objects, as they are defined by Hui, and shaped ontologically by networks and the internet. The question Hui asks of digital objects is this: “In what way can we approach these objects to further understand their existence?” With the help of Hui’s writing we will 9 ask a similar question of digital records, how can we approach them to understand their existence?

As we will see the approaches to this question within archives and information science has been varied.

Tom Nesmith (1999) describes records as: “an evolving mediation of understanding about some phenomenon – a mediation created by social and technical processes of inscription, transmission and contextualisation.” Upward and McKemmish (2001) similarly emphasise the social processes which 10 form the transactional and contextual nature of records, along with its evidentiary function. Another 11 example is found in an article by Victoria Lemieux (2001), where the concept of records is studied empirically and shown to be a chaotic term, shaped by its surrounding relations:

Becker, ‘Metaphors We Work By’.


Lovink and Hui, ‘Digital Objects and Metadata Schemes’.


Hui, On the Existence of Digital Objects, 27.


Nesmith, ‘Still Fuzzy, But More Accurate: Some Thoughts on the “Ghosts” of Archival Theory’.


Upward and McKemmish, ‘In Search of the Lost Tiger, by Way of Sainte-Beuve,’ 27.



[…] there is no single valid conceptualization of the record, but there are many valid

conceptualizations arising from particular social contexts, and, further, that meaning in records is engendered over time by all those involved in the processes of inscription, transmission, and contextualization, including record-keepers. 12

Lemieux argues that a capacity for a critical reading of records is needed to bring order to this chaos, “a reading based on an understanding of how both designed and accidental social and technological influences structure meaning.” This thesis will assess whether the theories formulated by Yuk Hui can 13 function as such a reading: a structuring theoretical framework for records in digital environments. At the heart of this thesis is an investigation into the understanding of the nature of digital records, their being. For such an understanding both a technical and a philosophical level of inquiry is needed.

1.1 Related Research: The Concept of a Record

There is to my knowledge no research or writing done on the possible application of Yuk Hui’s theories in archival and recordkeeping studies. This background section gives an overview of the continuing 14 need for the introduction of new concepts in archival studies. It also discusses possibilities for new theory, new definitions and postmodern thinking in archival studies. In the book chapter ‘Archival and Recordkeeping Research’, Gilliland and McKemmish (2018), argue for a more reflexive and robust research in archival and recordkeeping studies, and point to the multitude of possibilities for a new theory. They also point out how a postmodern view of records sees them as “both fixed and mutable,

’always in a process of becoming’, fixed in terms of content and structure, but linked to ever-broadening layers of contextual metadata that manages their meanings, and enables their accessibility and usability as they move through ’spacetime’.” This is a postmodern framework where the archive itself is seen as 15 and allowed to be fluid and dynamic: “The archive(s) and often also the Archive, conceptualised as by- product or residue, and as an historical artefact fully formed and circumscribed in the positivist tradition, is seen as constantly evolving and changing shape a dynamic, performative entity in postmodern frameworks.” 16

The introduction and discussion of postmodern ideas in archival and recordkeeping research goes back to the late 80s, and has been discussed and debated by many, though the results, and effects on archival practice, are more difficult to define. In Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth:

Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives (2001) Terry Cook discusses the possible strengths and

Lemieux, ‘Let the Ghosts Speak: An Empirical Exploration of the “Nature” of the Record,’ 81.


Lemieux, ‘Let the Ghosts Speak: An Empirical Exploration of the “Nature” of the Record,’ 110.


Christoph Becker cites the introduction to Hui’s book On the Existence of Digital Objects in the article ‘Metaphors We


Work By- Reframing Digital Objects, Significant Properties, and the Design of Digital Preservation Systems’, but makes no further argument or claim through it.

Gilliland and McKemmish, ‘Archival and Recordkeeping Research,’ 98.


Gilliland and McKemmish, ‘Archival and Recordkeeping Research,’ 98.



weaknesses he perceives in postmodern analysis, and tentatively formulates some definitions of

postmodernism in archival studies. The article is especially interesting for its focus on the large diversity and uncertainty in information systems, archival practices and users of archives, as well as how this can be mirrored through postmodern thinking. He makes a similar argument in Archival science and postmodernism: new formulations for old concepts (2001), arguing against universalism and resistance to change. He states that ideas, strategies and methods in archival studies has to be seen as constantly changing and transforming concepts, shaped by a complex web of circumstances – social, technical and cultural among others – and that archivists and researchers need to participate in investigating and articulating the radical changes society goes through. He summarises his view succinctly here: “Process rather than product, becoming rather than being, dynamic rather than static, context rather than text, reflecting time and place rather than universal absolute[…]” This is a clear opening and argument for 17 new theories and thinking, which is mirrored in the arguments of Tom Nesmith (2002), who also emphasises the evolving nature of records; how the archivist or recordkeeping professional transform or recreate objects in the process of preserving them. Nesmith also argues that symbolic and

conceptualising processes shape archives, and points to possible consequences for digital archives. In 18 En Mal d’archive: Postmodernist Theory and Recordkeeping (2009) Rachel Hardiman provides a broad overview of postmodern thinking and its relationship to archival studies, where a similar view is expressed: “[…]postmodernism may be of value not so much for the answers it gives but for the questions it asks, or rather for its throwing into question a great deal that is often taken for

granted[…]” Similarly Marlene Manoff (2004) describes in another article the interest and variation 19 in using postmodern theories in archival studies and information science. A more contemporary 20 perspective is presented by Evans et al (2007), describing the need for a new and critical epistemological paradigm, in order to confront the challenges of ’the archival turn’ – the displacement of the limits 21 and borders of the archive. They write: “The continuum definition moves beyond academy-centred, normative critiques and goal-setting to embrace transformative, participatory action research and practice[…].” 22

We will also look more closely at discussions and research into digital objects.

Klareld and Gidlund (2017) point to the divergences and confusion regarding definitions and conceptions of digital archives, in their article mainly in regard to e-governance. They argue that:

“[…]there is a need for openings (i.e., reinterpretations of the concept of the archive in the digital

Cook, ”Archival Science and Postmodernism,” 24.


Nesmith, ‘Seeing Archives’.


Hardiman, ”En Mal d’archive,” 37.


Manoff, ”Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines”.


See Ketelaar, ‘Archival Turns and Returns: Studies of the Archive’, ”[…]looking up from (the content of) the archival


document to and through the archive, looking beyond – and questioning – its boundaries.” 236.

Evans, McKemmish, och Rolan, ”Critical Approaches to Archiving and Recordkeeping in the Continuum,” 11.



environment), which may offer new ways to follow the principles of public archives management.” In 23 their argument they take the force of metaphors in relation to different discourses as a given, as a force structuring our perception of reality, as well as guiding our actions.

In an article from 2001 Luciana Duranti formulates several problems which are still current within archival studies, as well as how basic definitions shape interactions with digital archives and digital objects. For example a fundamental change in thinking is needed to embrace the idea that it is not the objects themselves which are preserved digitally in an archive or collection, but rather the possibility of recalling an identical object, with the same content and relation to its surroundings. As 24 with several of the texts referred to above, Duranti’s main argument is that new concepts, methods and theories are needed within archival studies, as long as they are adapted and reformulated so that they can be integrated: “[…]investigation of new archival realities can use productively methodologies and concepts that axe outside the realm of archival science, as long as the purpose, the questions and the theory guiding such investigation are archival in nature” This is emphasised by another well respected 25 researcher, Richard Pearce-Moses (2007). His perspective is more on the archival practice, but the message is the same – a clear understanding of records in digital formats and environments is needed in order to create sustainable scenarios for archives: “we should begin by getting a rich understanding of records that matches our knowledge of paper records.” 26

A text which formulates a problem similar to this thesis is the article “Metaphors We Work By- Reframing Digital Objects, Significant Properties, and the Design of Digital Preservation

Systems” (2018) by Christoph Becker. Becker argues that the conceptual framework for digital objects is increasingly important, and that it in turn functions metaphorically – digital objects are a metaphorical construction. His argument is primarily technical, entering into a dialog with previous research as well as relating to different projects of preservation and digitisation, drawing conclusions from their

processes. As Klareld and Gidlund he points to the metaphorical function of concepts and definitions, as well as the recurring focus on tangible materiality in descriptions and definitions of digital objects.

This focus on the tangible springs from a wish to store, arrange, describe, rearrange etc.: “However, this quickly becomes an untenable position when we consider that actions for preservation – whether migration or emulation – in fact destroy what these definitions call ’digital objects.’” Like Duranti 27 above, Becker refers to the fact that the data in itself doesn’t need to be preserved or survive , and 28 points to a widespread confusion regarding conceptions of digital objects. The solutions he suggests are

Klareld och Gidlund, ”Rethinking Archives as Digital: The Consequences of “Paper Minds” in Illustrations and Definitions


of E-Archives,” 104.

Duranti, ”The Impact of Digital Technology on Archival Science”.


Duranti, ”The Impact of Digital Technology on Archival Science,” 52.


Pearce-Moses, ‘Janus in Cyberspace,’ 17


Becker, ‘Metaphors We Work By,’ 22.


Becker, ‘Metaphors We Work By,’ 22.



of a completely technical kind, leaving the theoretical aspect unexplored. Here is yet another 29

researcher calling for a more theoretical framework – as well as philosophically grounded definitions – for digital objects, definitions that can function both discursively and practically in digital archives. In Archive and Database as Metaphor (2010) Manoff’s investigation can be read in parallel to Becker, as she explores “the tremendous archival power of the digital and the value of archival metaphor in helping us to understand new media.” Metaphor is a recurring theme, which I read as a grasping for that which is 30 not fixed or wholly concrete and functional, that which can be related to language and more abstract thought.

In a slightly different strand of thought, Marciano et al. argues in Archival Records and Training in the Age of Big Data (2018) from a practical perspective, and on a concrete level, that computer science and archival studies need to shape a new transdisciplinary field together, ’Computational Archival Science’ (CAS). “If archivists are to successfully adapt to the current environment, they must examine the theories and methods that dominate records practices.” Part of this answer can perhaps be 31 found in Yuk Hui, with his marrying of programming languages, computational theory, analytic

philosophy and postmodern theory. In general though, I see their solution as far too instrumental and burdened by ideas of the computational as strictly concrete and isolated. What they do provide is yet another call for new theory and concepts, and an initiated discussion into digital archives and their needs.

Victoria Lemieux identifies the same needs as Marciano et al. and discusses themes such as transdiciplinarity and decentralisation in the book chapter “The future of archives as networked, decentralised, autonomous and global” (2018). She makes an argument for archival researchers and computer/information researchers need to meet across the borders of their respective fields, in order to translate and transpose existing theories to new areas, in her case specific as it relates to blockchain technology. As this thesis will investigate, different conceptions of the nature of digital objects can 32 have a variety of effects on archival studies, and on records in particular. It can be argued that one such effect is the crisis described by Upward et al. in an article from 2013, a crisis springing from the increasing complexity and convergence of information objects (as Upward et al. describe digital objects), both formally technical as well as relationally, in the same way as metadata and descriptions increase exponentially in volume and their connections to other objects become more multitudinous. 33 The space-time-thinking advocated by Upward et al. as a possible solution and an integral part of the records continuum model – both as a specific sensibility and practice – is open to a deeper

interpretation through Hui’s ideas of the digital objects as relational (space) and pointing forward in

Becker, ‘Metaphors We Work By,’ 25.


Manoff, ‘Archive and Database as Metaphor,’ 386.


Marciano m.fl., ”Archival Records and Training in the Age of Big Data”.


Lemieux, ”The Future of Archives as Networked, Decentralised, Autonomous and Global”.


Upward et al., ‘Recordkeeping Informatics’.



time (temporal) through tertiary protention, a development of philosopher Bernard Stiegler’s concept tertiary retention. A more solution-driven outlook can be found in the work of Patricia Galloway. In 34 an article from 2005 she provides a good overview of the practical challenges of digitisation, with a review of the technical literature as well as a discussion of some examples, and states that the important question is not how to preserve but rather “why preserve?; what to preserve?; and who should do it?” 35 In a subsequent article she provides a kind of answer to this, arguing that the whole context

surrounding and including a digital object needs to be preserved, not just descriptively but concretely in order to be able to recreate the OS or software they are originally built upon, whenever an object needs to be extracted from the archive. Ultimately her articles are useful in identifying an accepted and 36 widespread definition of digital objects, but does nothing to further a theoretical discussion of them.

The opposite can be said about What You See Is What You Get? (2010) by Alexander Galloway, which mainly explores how the internet functions at a fundamental level. What is a network and what can a network do? Can a network be an archive, and if so how does that change our conception of the archive. Yet again we are provided with a clear opening for a philosophically grounded and unifying definition of digital objects: “Never before in history has the archive been so large, but never before has the archive been so inaccessible.” This can be nuanced with the view, which is expressed more and 37 more often from within archival studies – although tentatively – that the archive itself is changing. This is formulated by Lane and Hill, with a nod towards Deleuze and Guattari, in 2010:

The rhizomic character (where we view archives as networks, rather than as hierarchical structures) of the digital has the potential to construct new identities for archives and in order to get to these we have to introduce redefinitions that venture ‘into the undefining of archives’ 38

In summary, this section has shown the need for new concepts and theories in archival studies, in order to deal with the changing digital reality.

1.2 Problem and Objective

Problem statement: Archives and information science suffers from a lack of firmly established theoretical frameworks and definitions concerning the digital, especially of the philosophical kind. This applies equally to the concept records, which is

foundational in archival studies.

Archive studies in general lacks a more in-depth concept and theoretical framework around digital

Hui, ‘Archives of the Future: Remarks on the Concept of Tertiary Protention’.


Galloway, ‘Preservation of Digital Objects,’ 550.


Galloway, ‘Archiving Digital Objects as Maintenance’.


Galloway, ‘What You See Is What You Get?,’ 175.


Lane and Hill, ‘Where Do We Come From?,’ 19.



objects. This is also something that is discussed and called for by researchers in archives and information studies, from a few different perspectives. In this thesis this is treated as a question of what the digital is, and what the digital is in relation to philosophical traditions. My point of departure is this research question: can the theories on digital objects formulated by Yuk Hui function as a theoretical framework for digital objects in archives, specifically in relation to records?

Two subquestions follow from this:

• How do digital objects function philosophically or how can they be understood philosophically?

The abstract understanding of a thing or phenomena shapes the management and critique of the same.

• What are the possible consequences of Hui’s digital object theory on our understanding of digital records? This answers to an outspoken desire within archival studies, a wish for structuring theory.

The objective of this thesis is to study whether the concept of records can be enriched and adapted to a digital milieu through the interpretation and application of a digital object theory as defined by Hui. This will be achieved through a systematic interpretation of definitions and conceptual frameworks around digital objects, especially in relation to archives and records. The objective is thus to formulate a conceptual understanding of digital objects in relation to records and archives, with the use of Hui’s theories. In order to meet the objective, this thesis will confront the conceptual challenges concerning digital objects and records in archives – presenting a way to think and approach the

question theoretically. In what way can the theories of Hui enrich, evolve and transform the theoretical framework for records in the archival context? In short, what happens when we look at digital records through the lens of Hui’s theoretical framework?

1.3 Method

The topic of this thesis can be described as conflicting and fluid on several levels, both relating to definitions of digital archives in general, and more specifically concerning definitions of digital objects.

My method for tackling this is a composite, which is open towards interpretative possibilities of both harmonious and fragmentary situations, and which is adapted to suit the current context of the interpretation and its movement. This type of reflexive methodology is described and defined by Alvesson and Sköldberg (2009). This also entails an openness towards theoretical justifications 39

containing conflicting or multifaceted answers. My method is interpretative, a reflective movement able to contain aspects from several paradigms. This is a method that tries to include reflections on the basis of the interpretations. This inclusion is also mirrored through the use and comparison of definitions and

Alvesson and Skoldberg, Reflexive Methodology.



concepts from several disciplines, and a broad theoretical foundation. The empirical material is mainly text: descriptions and discussions of digital objects, digital archives, archival theory and records.

Meaning is created through contextual reading of the material, in something close to the method described by Trent and Cho in the article ‘Interpretation Strategies: Appropriate Concepts’ (2014). They argue for a reflexive method as a way of establishing trust and transparency towards the reader, which is a process where interpretations bound by context become an asset, because they share an idiosyncratic position with the reader. The methodological aim is to activate the connections and movement 40 between philosophical and conceptual positions, and give this movement a possible structure. As this is a thesis to a large part occupied with interpretations of definitions – language that is – a conceptual frame is called for in relation to language and method. Language functions as a tool where the indetermination and multiplicity of meanings is allowed, without attempts at totalising them.

As the approach is hermeneutic, the selection of material, books and articles, is subjective and not systematic. The collection of texts was made mainly through searches of the Google Scholar database, the Mid Sweden University database Primo and citation searching.

The method of this thesis can also be defined generally in terms of theory building, “how archival theory has been, or should be built,” as discussed by Gilliland and McKemmish (2004) in 41 their overview of research fields and methods within archival studies. They summarise theory building as a “Systematic building and exposition of new theory, drawing on existing theories, concepts and models, observation, scholarly communication, data derived from other methods, and characterised by reflection, deep thought and a process of gestation of ideas.” This can more generally be categorised as 42 meta theory: “philosophical discussion of the foundations, structure, or results of some theory.” The 43 development of new theory within a field, through existing theories and concepts, through

observations, characterised by a reflexive labour of ideas. I find no contradiction in this also containing varied and fluid meanings, as discussed above. Gilliland and McKemmish further emphasise how this type of work needs to be explicit concerning its own internal logic, which is to say it needs to show as clearly as possible how the theory is developed and justified, in order to make it available for further use.

They also position themselves in favour of postmodern frameworks in relation to positivist traditions:

“The archive, conceptualized as a relic, an historical artefact, fully formed and closed in the positivist tradition is seen as constantly evolving and changing shape in postmodern frameworks.” A method 44 open to postmodern tendencies is according to Gilliland and McKemmish more useful for exploring new conceptions and ideas surrounding archives.

Trent and Cho, ‘Interpretation Strategies: Appropriate Concepts,’ 656.


Gilliland and McKemmish, ‘Building an Infrastructure for Archival Research,’ 154.


Gilliland and McKemmish, ‘Building an Infrastructure for Archival Research,’ 179.


Collins English Dictionary, ‘Metatheory’.


Gilliland and McKemmish, ‘Building an Infrastructure for Archival Research,’ 169.



To summarise, the basis for the methodological approach here is interpretative, – hermeneutic – postmodern and metatheoretical; applies a reflexive approach to paradigms and interpretative traditions, which concretely will focus on interpretations of definitions and concepts – philosophically and


1.4 Theory

Yuk Hui’s book On the Existence of Digital Objects (2016) functions as the central theoretical work of this thesis. The book is an investigation into the genesis and being of digital objects, using thoughts from computer and information science, philosophy of technology with readings of Martin Heidegger and Gilbert Simondon, connecting this to a broader theoretical tradition represented by Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Hegel. Joel McKim summarises Hui’s agenda in a review:

The book suggest that it is only by bringing these distinct forms of disciplinary knowledge together, uncovering what Hui identifies as “a reciprocal relation between computation and philosophy” (3), that we may begin to understand both the system of logic that underpins contemporary digital objects and the ontological and political stakes involved in determining how to live amongst them. 45

Yuk Hui's theories will be applied to the formulation of a functional framework for archives, and specifically for digital records. The theory can therefore be described as equal parts method and material for the finished thesis. The theory is interpreted, both concretely and in a meta perspective, but the theory is also applied in order to interpret records and digital objects in archives. The approach,

following Hui, is interdisciplinary in incorporating both technical theory and philosophy. The majority of the philosophical terms which will be appropriated from Hui belong roughly to phenomenology.

The theoretical counterpart for speaking on records is provided mainly by Geoffrey Yeo’s book Records, information and data: exploring the role of record-keeping in an information culture, the article

‘Records, Hyperobjects and Authenticity’ by Frans Smit and the article ‘When Is a Record; a Research Framework for Locating Electronic Records in Infrastructure.’ by Amelia Acker. Several other articles and books are used as well in order to find a meaningful and clear concept of records and digital records. In addition to the above different theories from computer science, library science, philosophy, cultural heritage studies and museum studies among others are discussed as juxtapositions and


McKim, ‘Envisioning a Technological Humanism – A Review of Yuk Hui’s, On the Existence of Digital Objects.’



1.5 Scope

As discussed above, this thesis is not concerned with the practical technical challenges concerning digital archives and records. Technical aspects and discussions are only present insofar as they pertain to issues of definition and theoretical framings. This includes manuals for digital work and implementation for example. Questions of hierarchy in data models or practical programming/software are likewise outside of our scope here.

Many theories on information and data is by necessity omitted. Luciano Floridi’s semantic theory of information for example, while influential in archival studies, is outside of the field of study here, and only mentioned briefly as a counterpoint. The scope is conceptual and theoretical, embracing a multiplicity of influences, but restricted in terms of immediate applicability. Likewise, in the case of Yuk Hui, this is by necessity a selective account of his theories and writings, tailored for relevance towards possible application and framing of archival studies and the concept of records therein. The temporal concepts and a wider analysis of digital milieu fall outside of the scope of this thesis. Lack of space also prohibits any deeper exploration or exposition of his reasoning or philosophical influences.

1.6 Outline

This thesis is structured into four parts, including this introduction. Structurally the thesis adheres to the ‘Phenomenological Writing Structures’ presented by Creswell and Poth in Qualitative Inquiry &

Research Design (2018). Chapter 2. Analysis includes the survey, analysis and findings of my inquiry 46 into digital objects, digital archives and digital records. It is divided into three subsections. 2.1 Digital Objects deals with digital objects, first generally in archives and adjacent fields, and then in depth through the writings of Yuk Hui, formulating a framework with applicability towards archives and the concept of records. 2.2 A Short Reflection on Digital Archives builds upon this and discusses and defines some aspects of digital archives, postcustodial theory and provides some background for the next section. 2.3 Records deals with the definitions and concepts surrounding records, looking first at basic definitions, then from different critical perspectives and finally looks at what is specific to digital records, whilst making parallels and reflections on possible relations to the concepts of Yuk Hui. In 3.

Discussion Hui’s concepts and the conceptions of digital records are more comprehensively brought together and analysed, in order to explore possible implications and uses. The thesis ends with a 4.Conclusions, followed by a bibliography.

Creswell and Poth, Qualitative Inquiry & Research Design,187.



2. Analysis

2.1 Digital Objects

Digital objects break. Digital materials occur in a rich array of types and representations. They are bound to varying degrees to the specific application packages (or hardware) that were used to create or manage them. They are prone to corruption. They are easily misidentified. They are generally poorly described or annotated; they often have insufficient metadata attached to them to avoid their gradual susceptibility to syntactical and semantic glaucoma. Where they do have sufficient ancillary data, these data are frequently time constrained. 47

The above quote, from an article on digital preservation by Seamus Ross (2012), is just one of many pessimistic outbursts to be found in articles and texts from recent years discussing digital objects, digital archives and digital preservation. In this present study we won’t go further than needed into the specifics of the technical side of digital objects and preservation, but suffice to say that there is much confusion and pessimism. Let me point to the use of the term digital object above. The article points to the materiality and fragility of digital objects, to their tangibility. The materiality or immateriality of digital objects shapes many aspects of our understanding of them. Are they metaphorical or concrete, abstract representations or extensions of hardware?

2.1.1 Definitions and Reflections

In our attempt at understanding digital objects and interpreting their definitions, let us first look at two authoritative and widely cited definitions, from Society of American Archivists (SAA) and InterPARES TRUST. SAA defines a digital object as: “A unit of information that includes properties (attributes or characteristics of the object) and may also include methods (means of performing operations on the object).” The first thing to note is that digital object is defined as information, as opposed to data. This 48 is relevant both in relation to digital objects as defined by Hui, and the concept of records as defined by Yeo for example, both of which we will discuss further. In the notes to the definition are several points of further interest. The origin of the term is traced to object-oriented programming, describing objects as both subject to definitions like classes, properties and method, but also “an abstraction that can refer to any type of information.” Further down in the note this final definition is added: “In addition to 49

Ross, ‘Digital Preservation, Archival Science and Methodological Foundations for Digital Libraries,’ 44.


Society of American Archivists, ‘Digital Object’.


Society of American Archivists, ‘Digital Object’.



the data that makes up the fundamental content, the object often includes metadata that describes the resource in a manner that supports administration, access, or preservation.” The InterPARES 50

definition is different in that it doesn’t mention information, but focuses instead on metadata and computation: “A discrete aggregation of one or more bitstreams and the metadata about the properties of the object and, if applicable, methods of performing operations on the object.” This definition is, as 51 well see later in this section, closer to Hui’s conception of digital objects, as it takes the actual

computation into account, bitstreams. Despite any small linguistic or conceptual differences, both definitions contain the same basic pieces: a unit/entity of data/information/bitstreams.

Yet another widely used and cited definition but from a slightly different perspective is PREMIS’, which stands for Preservation Metadata: Implementation Strategies. PREMIS is an

“international standard for metadata to support the preservation of digital objects and ensure their long- term usability.” PREMIS defines digital objects as “a discrete unit of information subject to digital 52 preservation.” PREMIS defines other entities as well, that might fall within the scope of digital objects 53 in other definitions, among them Environment: “Technology (software or hardware) supporting a Digital Object in some way (e.g. rendering or execution). Environments can be described as Intellectual Entities and captured and preserved in the preservation repository as Representations, Files and/or Bitstreams.” In addition they define four subcategories to digital objects, Intellectual Entity, 54

Representation, File, and Bitstream. They can be visualised as a stack, with Intellectual Entity on top and Bitstream at the bottom, or as PREMIS does in this conceptual view of the categories, showing the fluidity and networked nature even ’inside’ the digital object:

Society of American Archivists, ‘Digital Object’.


Pearce-Moses, ‘Digital Object’.


PREMIS Editorial Committee, PREMIS Data Dictionary for Preservation Metadata, Version 3.0, 7.


PREMIS Editorial Committee, PREMIS Data Dictionary for Preservation Metadata, Version 3.0, 7.


PREMIS Editorial Committee, PREMIS Data Dictionary for Preservation Metadata, Version 3.0, 7.


fig. 1

PREMIS Editorial Committee, PREMIS Data Dictionary for Preservation Metadata, Version 3.0. 7.


Digital objects are an important aspect of many fields, especially in the larger sphere of LAMs

(Libraries, archives and museums). In Discover Digital Libraries (2016) Xie and Matusiak defines digital objects for the purposes of libraries, digitisation and digital preservation:

[…] digital objects may exist in multiple copies, in several manifestations, and may have associated representation information. This phenomenon is evident in digitization projects where multiple copies of master files are created for preservation purposes. A master file is then a source for several derivatives, which tend to be smaller and have a different configuration of bits. Yet, all these different objects are representations of the same informational content, ideally described by consistent and linked metadata. 55

This is a definition favouring the informational aspect, where information is placed over data in the hierarchy, and underlining the importance of metadata. Xie and Matusiak summarise the distinction between data and information objects in the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) reference model: “In defining Information Object, it makes a distinction between Data Object (sequence of bits) and Representation Information. Data Object is interpreted with the associated Representation

Information, yielding a useful and meaningful Information Object. This distinction is important in the context of archival information systems that need to support preservation of bits as well as the

maintenance of Representation Information.” Of interest here is the separation between the data 56 objects and information objects, and the use of the word representation, as if it is variable that can be represented in different way. But, these objects as I understand it simply correspond to data and metadata, albeit using a more neutral language.

In a paper for the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Clifford Lynch (2000) reflects on common notions of digital objects, stating that most computer scientists define them as a set of sequence of bits, subject to computational questions and definitions. Lynch argues that this is too simplistic:

There are additional factors to consider. Bits are not directly apprehended by the human sensory apparatus-they are never truly artifacts. Instead, they are rendered, executed, performed, and presented to people by hardware and software systems that interpret them. The question is how sophisticated these environmental hardware and software systems are and how integral they are to the understanding of the bits. 57

In order to better define digital objects, Lynch formulates a hierarchy, with four levels: Data,

Documents, Sensory presentations and (Interactive) experiential works. Lynch notes: “As we move up the hierarchy, from data to experiential works, the questions about the integrity and authenticity of the digital objects become more complex and perhaps more subjective; they address experience rather than

Xie and Matusiak, Discover Digital Libraries, 262.


Xie and Matusiak, Discover Digital Libraries, 270.


Lynch, ‘Authenticity and Integrity in the Digital Environment: An Exploratory Analysis of the Central Role of Trust’.



documentary content.” This reference to experience reads as a conceptualisation that approaches what 58 Yuk Hui terms existential relations, a concept we will return to in the next section, 2.1.2 Digital Objects According to Yuk Hui.

Moving away from the more formal and computational definitions to more abstract ones it is worth looking at this quote by Kenneth Thibodeau (2012):

[…] digital memory is a shape shifter that takes on very different forms, driven by two distinct causes: first the characteristics of digital information itself and second the environment of change that engulfs digital information objects. There is thus an inherent tension between digital

information, which does not stay still, and digital preservation, which quintessentially seeks to keep things in place, without significant change.59

This tension is something visible in all aspects of the new, and especially in new digital fields, and a tension with consequences, as Xie and Matusiak notes: “The unstable and mutable nature of digital information poses risks to its authenticity and integrity.” They go on to discuss the ways in which 60 authenticity and integrity has been discussed in relation to digital preservation, and the importance of determining which properties of a digital object actually need to be preserved. They observe that authenticity and integrity “relate to the basic questions in digital preservation: (1) How do we know that digital objects are complete and have not been altered or corrupted? and (2) Are preserved digital objects reliable and genuine representations of what they claim to be?” 61

This is expanded upon by Lynch, who offers several definitions of what these concepts might mean for digital objects: “When we say that a digital object has ‘integrity,’ we mean that it has not been corrupted over time or in transit; in other words, that we have in hand the same set of sequences of bits that came into existence when the object was created.” We will return to the concepts of integrity, 62 authenticity and evidence in section 2.3 Records, as they are core concepts for the understanding and use of records.

Kallinikos et al. (2010, 2013) have written two articles representing a more instrumental, concrete and positivist view of digital objects, leaning towards the field of informatics. These can 63 function here as comparative examples and provide a more nuanced conception of digital objects.

Kallinikos et al. argue that the value and usefulness of digital objects is – in light of their fluid nature as editable, interactive and distributed – dependent on shifting networks of functional relations with other objects. This focus on relations as defining feature is echoed in Hui as we will see later in this section.

The continuous change of digital objects demands a new paradigm and new way of thinking about

Lynch, ‘Authenticity and Integrity in the Digital Environment: An Exploratory Analysis of the Central Role of Trust’.


Thibodeau, ‘Wrestling with Shape-Shifters: Perspectives on Preserving Memory in the Digital Age,’ 15.


Xie and Matusiak, Discover Digital Libraries, 263.


Xie and Matusiak, Discover Digital Libraries, 263.


Lynch, ‘Authenticity and Integrity in the Digital Environment: An Exploratory Analysis of the Central Role of Trust’.


Kallinikos, Aaltonen, och Marton, ”A theory of digital objects”; Kallinikos, Aaltonen, och Marton, ”The Ambivalent Ontology


of Digital Artifacts”.


knowledge previously taken for granted in information system research. Kallinikos et al. writes: 64

“[…]the attributes of digital objects and the operations by which they are sustained mingle with social practices redefining the scope, the object of work and the modes of conduct underlying them.” If 65 digital objects are shaped by social practices as they state, then they can’t be discussed solely from a technical or technological perspective, a view shared by Amanda Lagerkvist in her introduction to the book Digital existence: ontology, ethics, and transcendence in digital culture (2019). She argues that in addition to thinking on the essence of technology, in terms of what the digital object is in its basic foundations, we need to “[…] acknowledge in a more concrete, contextually specific and post-

phenomenological manner what things do, as well as what we do with our tools” , with other words, 66 what effects the nature of digital objects bring with them.

Cristoph Becker (2018) frames the problem, and the definition of digital objects, in a slightly different light. His main argument is that digital objects are to their nature metaphorical, something hitherto missed or misdiagnosed in the discourse around them. He makes a quick overview of 67

definitions, coming to the conclusion that the most common conceptual frame is predicated on data : 68 The definition by Sandra Payette et al. serves as an illustration: ’a digital object model ... enables the aggregation of distributed, heterogeneous elements or streams of data to create complex multimedia objects.’ It is consistent with the widely cited definition of Robert Kahn and Robert Wilensky: ’A digital object is a data structure whose principal components are digital material, or data, plus a unique identifier for this material.’ 69

As we have already seen, information is as much in focus as data in definitions of digital objects, but Becker sees two opposing forces at work, arguing that while a focus on the tangible is fitting for “a logical way of thinking of tangible artefacts that can be stored, ordered, arranged, described, duplicated, and sent around”, it is an “untenable position when we consider that actions for preservation – whether migration or emulation – in fact destroy what these definitions call ’digital objects.’” This is the same 70 fact previously pointed out by for example Duranti (2001) but Becker draws very different 71

conclusions, that I see as faulty thinking, as it supposes that any one person or entity cannot hold two types of realities in mind simultaneously, it is a false opposition. This view is also easily opposed through the multitude of writings on digital memory for example, where the tangible nature of memory is very

Kallinikos, Aaltonen, och Marton, ”The Ambivalent Ontology of Digital Artifacts”.


Kallinikos, Aaltonen, och Marton, ”A theory of digital objects”.


Lagerkvist, Digital existence.


Digital media theorist Wendy Chun makes a similar argument: ”Computers, like other media, are metaphor machines:


they both depend on and perpetuate metaphors. More remarkably, though, they—through their status as “universal machines”—have become metaphors for metaphor itself.” Chun, Programmed Visions, 55.

Becker, ‘Metaphors We Work By,’ 21.


Becker, ‘Metaphors We Work By,’ 21.


Becker, ‘Metaphors We Work By,’ 21.


Duranti, ‘The Impact of Digital Technology on Archival Science’.



present. This argument is even more emphatically refuted in the finishing passages of Ciaran B. Trace’s article from 2011:

[…]if the black box is opened for examination, we can find the equivalent of the record, the file folder, and the filing cabinet, even if they exist at the most basic level as material traces in either electronic or magnetic form. Indeed, as anyone who has opened a computer case recently will attest, even the dust is still there!72

As we will see in the next section, with Hui we find other ways of thinking and framing, which take both these approaches into account, and neutralises Beckers argument.

Yeo (2018), whose work we will discuss and interpret in part 4, provides different definitions of digital objects, seemingly depending on the context, and focusing on their intangibility as opposed to the definitions cited by Becker: “The intangibility of digital objects, their seeming ephemerality and their separation of messages from fixed media all appeared to threaten the viability of long-term

preservation.” Intangibility and diversity are recurring problems raised in discussions on digital objects 73 and digital preservation, as Thibodeau (2002) in this quote from another CLIR publication: “The variety and complexity of digital information objects engender a basic criterion for evaluating possible digital preservation methods, namely, they must address this variety and complexity. Does that

necessarily mean that we must preserve the variety and complexity?” His answer to this is to formulate 74 three layers which every digital object contains:

Every digital object is a physical object, a logical object, and a conceptual object, and its properties at each of those levels can be significantly different. A physical object is simply an inscription of signs on some physical medium. A logical object is an object that is recognized and processed by software.

The conceptual object is the object as it is recognized and understood by a person, or in some cases recognized and processed by a computer application capable of executing business transactions. 75 This as we will see is a very different conceptualisation from the one Hui performs, but, they assign similar value to the next step in the definition, relationships. For Thibodeau the relationships between other objects, and between the layers within one object, is the real area of interest. From his digital preservation perspective, the relationships in and between digital objects must be “known or

knowable.” Hui is interested in the relationships and relation between objects also, but from a more 76 conceptual perspective, where knowing them specifically is not the foremost criteria.

It is also interesting to compare the above definitions with those from an adjacent field like museum studies. In the book Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age (2018) Haidy Geismar exemplifies the approach, wherein the materiality of the digital object, its connection and analogous character is much more important:

Trace, ‘Beyond the Magic to the Mechanism,’ 27.


Yeo, Records, Information and Data, 31.


Thibodeau, ‘Overview of Technological Approaches to Digital Preservation and Challenges in Coming Years,’ 5.


Thibodeau, ‘Overview of Technological Approaches to Digital Preservation and Challenges in Coming Years,’ 6.


Thibodeau, ‘Overview of Technological Approaches to Digital Preservation and Challenges in Coming Years,’ 11.



The fundamental argument of this book is that we need to pay attention to the specific contexts, as well as materialities, of digital objects and that digital media in museums exist in a long-standing continuum or process of mediation, technological mimesis and objectification. 77

She further argues that any definition of digital objects in museums becomes a compound of many aspects, and must confront issues that are “epistemological, experiential and political. Drawing on material culture studies we can understand any object as a material, social, political and epistemological palimpsest.” The reasoning for taking all these into account is at its core a desire for museums to say 78 something worthwhile about the world outside the museum. In a way this can be viewed as a desire for the digital objects to have both accountability and evidentiary functions, corresponding closely to definitions of records in archives and recordkeeping. But, it also disqualifies the digital objects as holding any value of their own, within the digital. The museum studies perspective is interesting firstly because of its preoccupation with the material, and mimetic aspects of digital objects. More than

anywhere else they are concerned with mimicking the actual physical object as closely as possible. At the same time they are stunted by this, because they always see the digital object as a reconstruction and copy, and this in turn as a negative.

Fiona Cameron, from the field of cultural heritage, circumvents this, in a vein similar to Buckland in Information as a thing (1991), by formulating a conceptual model wherein all digital objects are instead framed as things, and individuated according to their objective thingness. This, as we will see in the next section on Hui, can be argued as a subset to relational objects. In the article

Theorising Heritage Collection Digitisations in Global Computational Infrastructures (2019), Cameron performs a series of theoretical movements, displaying increasingly philosophical approaches to working with digital objects, landing in a formulation of the concept ‘thingness’: “My notion of thingness is post-relational, that is, it incorporates different types of relatedness and embodied vitalities generated by digitisations’ interoperability.” She applies an ecological lens to the digital, and reaches a description 79 with many things in common with the relational and web ontological definition of Hui, even though they perform very different theoretical operations. Thingness is also a phenomenological term derived from Heidegger, but as we will see, Hui’s engagement with Heidegger produces a different reading.

Cameron argues that digital objects incorporate different relations (relatedness), while for Hui, relation are part of what constitutes and presupposes digital objects.

The relational character of digital objects can’t be ignored, as David M. Berry writes in Critical Theory and the Digital (2014): “There is often a temptation to think of the software as a discrete ‘object’

or package, forgetting that software and code are extremely networked and cannot function when taken away from this software ecology.” The theoretical approach and the different definitions which can be 80

Geismar, Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age, 11.


Geismar, Museum Object Lessons for the Digital Age, 13.


Cameron, ‘Theorising Heritage Collection Digitisations in Global Computational Infrastructures,’ 60.


Berry, Critical Theory and the Digital, 215.





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