Digital Transformation: Past, Present and Future in the Digital Archive

Friday 9th Sept, 16.30-18.00, Room CG10

Chair: Dr Portia Ungley, Kingston University

The digital archive and the digital book appear to be all about the future.  But this session discusses the idea that both are examples of non-synchronicity; they look simultaneously to the past and to the future, but exist only in tenuous form in the present.  Thus questions are raised about their design for users both for the present and the future.

Digitising Paper: The Paradoxes of Time in Digital Books
Toke Riis Ebbesen, Assistant Professor, SDU Design, Institute for Design & Communication, University of Southern Denmark
E: T: @tokeriis

In this paper I will analyse three contemporary Danish examples of digital book distribution formats in terms of how they are designed with special attention to their use of time. Even though reading digital media in general are often framed in relation to time, with notions such as the immediacy of the present, compression of time (and space) (Virillio, 1986), and built-in oblivion (Augé, 2004), connected to moralising notions of shallowness, restlessness and diseases such as stress (Carr, 2010). I will content, however, that the design of these digital formats – typography, covers and external mediations of ebooks – are still closely aligned with a graphic design tradition that refers closely to the materiality of the printed book. As such, I shall try to understand how time is manifested by approaching these digital books as designed objects, and in the context of the literature on design history, design criticism and theory, rather than from literary or book studies angles, drawing.

Furthermore, I will argue that the design of digital formats can be understood in the light of the temporal aspects of the future and the past. Ebooks are often posited as futuring objects, that is, as vehicles for a re-imagination of the future of the book, from aesthetical, technical and societal perspectives. At the same time, it is clear that many ebook formats, ebook readers and software platforms also seems to remediate the traditional design of paper books and mime or even cherish evocations of traditional book design. While this may make perfectly good business sense, as it doesn’t require a complete transformation of the production process, nor a rewriting of the book, it makes little sense in the discourse of ebooks as the future of reading. This is especially attenuated by the fact that most authors and readers, as well as other stakeholders in the business of the book (Darnton, 1982, Murray and Squires, 2013), still seems to prefer the ‘good old’ paper book (Woody et al, 2010).

It is my suggestion that these cultural imaginations can be understood as non-synchronicity (Jordheim, 2014), that is, as embedding multiple times in the present, enmeshed in the digital books themselves or in their discourse. Either they look to the past through the use of nostalgia, retro and appraisals of tradition (Baker, 2013), or to the future, through futuristic calls for renewal through radical design proposals, utopian or dystopian visions of social revolution through digital books. A third possibility is of course that ebooks are also striving to be ‘classics’ in the sense that they aim to transcend time through various strategies of design, even though ebooks remain a relatively new object category in the minds of consumers. As such, ebooks are embedded in a material culture of design (Dant, 1999) that encompasses all these aspects of time.

42134488_kvdheidenWhat You See is What We Had: The Digital Transformation of Graphic Design in the 1980s
Karin van der Heiden, lecturer, University of Arts Utrecht, independent researcher and curator 
E: T: @karinparkc

I was in charge of the Dutch Archives of Graphic Designers (NAGO) when preparing the acquisition of the archives of a major Dutch graphic design agency in 2006. During one of our visits to the design studio we were guided through the archives. Nearly three hundred metres of beautiful books, posters, annual reports and other design-objects. It was a wonderful and extensive job, but we were confident that we could manage it. Just before we left one of the partners took us to a separate storage room. He opened a drawer full of CDs and DVDs and asked: “Are you also interested in this stuff?” A simple question to which we had no answer at that moment.

In the early 1980s some Dutch graphic designers started to experiment with home- and game-consoles such as the Amiga, Atari and Sinclair ZX Spectrum computers. In addition to these experiments of a relatively autonomous nature, there was also interest in automation from the established design agencies. This led to the involvement of Total Design in the development of a computer-assisted design system to automate the craft aspects of the design process. The first Aesthedes computer – the name is a combination of Aesthetics and Design – was released in the early 19802. It was designed to be as user-friendly as possible, because designers were in general mathematically less developed. Using the Aesthedes, it was not necessary to master complex computer languages and programming codes. Total Design was as one of the few companies able to afford this expensive device. One of the partners of the agency recalls: “In 1984 the moment was there. With the purchase of the Aesthedes, graphic design was propelled into a completely new era.” Although the return on investment was said to be guaranteed, the Aesthedes proved to be susceptible to ageing and was surprisingly quickly overtaken by a new generation of personal computers and software.

My presentation focuses on the digital transformation of graphic design in The Netherlands during the early 1980s. I will pay attention to the phenomena that lead to the ‘automation’ of the design process. Today, the rapid digitisation of graphic design would be called a ‘disruptive innovation’ and it is remarkable that this development is scarcely studied in graphic design history. Graphic design is usually studied in art-historical perspective and there is – certainly in The Netherlands – little tradition in any other manner. While the many consequences accompanying the digital technology simply demand a wider interpretation. In this context the volatility of digital archives means an extra threat to current and future research. We need to pay attention to the digital revolution and emphasise the importance of research into the different aspects that this entails.

Design for the Digital Archive as a Time Machine
Fiorella Bulegato

The increasing number of historic documents available in digital format, as a result of digitalisation processes and policies to make archival materials available online, as well as the contribution of ‘native’ digital material posted by the users themselves, are slowly contributing to the transformation of the web from a place where artefacts of the present may sediment to the repository of a legacy of sources that also belong to the past.

To analyse and describe this volume of documents, in particular for the study of images and visual culture, it is important to develop new methods and approaches, as underlined by Maidment (2013).

A concrete opportunity is offered by research engines that can be searched through dedicated iconographic keywords, an experiment being conducted by the Replica international research project inaugurated in March 2016 in a collaboration between the Digital Humanities Laboratory of the École Polytechnique Federale in Lausanne and the Fondazione Giorgio Cini in Venice. Over a million images from the photo library of the Fondazione’s Institute of Art History – the largest existing iconographic legacy dedicated to the history of the art and architecture of Venetian civilisation – will be digitalised and analysed with algorithms based on CNN technology (Convolutional Neural Network) that make it possible, using defined ‘patterns’, to reconstruct visual similarities in artistic and architectural compositions. The images processed in this manner will be stored on a web portal that may be freely consulted and will make it possible to discover semantic or historical relations or to study genealogical affinities between works.

Indeed, methods for visualising temporal connections and genealogies of artworks were developed in the project inaugurated in 2010 by the Google Cultural Institute which gathered iconographic material from 1,000 museums. (The map may be viewed here.)

The examples highlight at least two significant aspects. On the one hand, to search the sources, it is necessary to implement specialised glossaries to describe, for example, the contents and elements of the visual composition; on the other hand, to disseminate the results of the searches, it will probably be necessary to design new interactions between texts, images, infographics and data visualisation that can expose new and renewed connections.

The paper intends to verify, in terms of the sources for the history of design, the state of the research, critical issues and the prospects for the two above-mentioned aspects.

Further Reading

Auge, M (2004) Oblivion, Minneapolis and London, University of Minnesota Press.

Baker, SE (2013) Retro Style, London: Bloomsbury.

Carr, N (2010) The Shallows, London: WW Norton & Company.

Campbell, C (1992) ‘The Desire for the New’, Consuming Technologies: Media and Information, in: Domestic Spaces, Silverman R and Hirsch E (eds), London: Routledge.

Dant, T (1999) Material Culture in the Social World, Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Darnton, R (1982) ‘What Is the History of Books?’, Daedalus 111(3), 65-83.

Jordheim, H (2014) ‘Introduction: Multiple Times and the Work of Synchronization’, History and Theory, 53, 498-518.

Maidment, B (2013) ‘Writing history with the digital image: A cautious celebration’, in Weller, T (ed), History in the digital age, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, pp.111-126.

Murray, PR and Squires C (2013) ‘The Digital Publishing Communications Circuit’, Book 2.0, 3(1), 3-23.

Virillio, P (1986) Speed and Politics: An Essay on Dromology. New York: Semiotext(e).

Woody, WD, Daniel DB and Baker CA (2010) ‘E-Books or Textbooks: Students Prefer Textbooks’, Computers & Education 55(3), 945–948.

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