Selection, Digitisation and Technological Determinism

Technological determinism (1) was the accusation directed at this blogger by a media academic, prompted by the suggestion in a conference paper that it would soon be possible and desirable to digitse everything – negating the need for any selection of material for digitisation. While the capacity to store and serve data could probably now accommodate this proposal, other factors such as finance and human resources that are placing limits on the scale of digitisation.

At some point digitisation projects have to engage with selection to fit the volume of digitisation (measured in this case as the number of reeel-to-reel tapes) to the budget. Two of the independent radio projects have applied an explicit selection policy, The South Southern Local Radio Digitisation Project and the LBC/IRN Project. Policies combine qualitative judgment of senior radio academics with broad brush criteria. For example priority was given to news and current affairs, and material from the 1970’s where very little survives. The other project The Independent Local Radio Programme Sharing Project: Felicity Wells Memorial Archive was itself a product of selection, the best local radio from around United Kingdom and has been digitised in its entirety.

However, before collections get as far as being digitised they have been subject to the attrition of random choices and accidents. The LBC/IRN archive was occasionally weeded to physically reduce the size of the collection. The archiving of local radio is notoriously unreliable, only the pro-active intervention of the Wessex Film and Sound Archive [WFSA] saved much of the material that forms the South Southern Local Radio Digitisation Project.

Selection is not the end of the story. The reel-to-reel tapes in these projects have not been destroyed but archived or returned to their original location. However, the motivation to revisit these collections and complete the digitisation process – and all the work that entails in raising finance – may not be as strong as the first impetus to create a digitisation project. Selection rightly or wrongly implies the best material has been digitised.

Where does that leave us? Well, it might be contingent on those making bids for digitisation to leave the door open for further bids. However, funding bodies, and you can see their point of view, are by their nature not incremental. Bids have to have a complete package with one shot at delivering a complete and polished product to end users. This means that money that might be used to digitise material that no end user might hear (or see or read), has to be used to buy the capability to deliver material over the web. Ultimately we rely on libraries, universities and archives to see the value (as Bournemouth University has done) in retaining analogue material for the future.

(1) “until the mid-1980s, technological determinism was the most popular and influential theory of the relationship between technology and society. Technological determinism views the development and diffusion of technology as developing independently of society, but producing societal effects.” (Shade 2007, line 1, papa 1).

Shade, L.R., 2007. Technological Determinism. Encyclopedia of New Media. 2007. London: SAGE. Available from: http://www.sage-ereference.com/newmedia/Article_n226.html [Accessed: 11 June 2008].

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