Digitization is a multiplier and metadata is a fractal

In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (sorry), Helga Hufflepuff’s goblet is stored in a vault at Gringotts that’s been cursed so that every time you touch one of the objects in it, dozens of copies are created. On the cover of the original U.K. edition of the book, Harry, Ron and Hermione are pictured scrambling atop a wave of facsimile’d treasure. I’ve started thinking about special collections digitization like this. Digitization doesn’t streamline or simplify library collections; rather, it multiplies them, as every interaction creates additional objects for curation and preservation

The above is from Harry Potter and the Responsible Version Control of Digital Surrogates and it is one of the few examples that I know of that uses the Harry Potter and the… trope appropriately. It is a post written by Emma Stanford, Digital Curator at the Bodleian Libraries from some months past but it came to my mind this week after reading this from Jep Thorpe‘s newsletter a couple of days ago:

The amount of data that can be conjured from any given thing is almost limitless. Pick up a plain grey rock from the side of the road, and in moments you can make a small dataset about it: size, weight, colour, texture, shape, material. If you take that rock to a laboratory these data can be made greatly more precise, and instrumentation beyond our own human sensorium can add to the list of records: temperature, chemical composition, carbon date. From here there is a kind of fractal unfolding of information that begins to occur, where each of these records in turn manifest their own data. The time at which the measurement was made, the instrument used to record it, the person who performed the task, the place where the analysis was performed. In turn, each of these new meta-data records can carry its own data: the age of the person who performed the task, the model of the instrument, the temperature of the room. Data begets data, which begets meta data, repeat, repeat, repeat. It’s data all the way down.

We use computers because they are supposed to make our lives more efficient but at every layer that they are applied they introduce complexity. This is one of the takeaways that I gained from reading the “Designing Freedom” Massey Lectures from cyberneticist Stafford Beer.

The book is very interesting but also a somewhat frustrating read and so if you are interested in learning more, I’d suggest this podcast episode dedicated to the book from the cybernetic marxists of General Intellect Unit.

Yes. There is now a podcast episode for everything.