Following our “Extreme Conservation Symposium” (convened March 20, 2015), we asked each presenter to share one idea from his or her presentation in short form on this blog. We are grateful for this opportunity to continue thinking through their groundbreaking work.

Image: Harvard metaLAB.

Auden wrote of objects that “their surfaces appear as deep / as any longing we believe we had; / if shapes can so to their own edges keep, / no separation proves a being bad.” The poet hymns a central task of conservation: to preserve objects in all their depth, to stabilize their edges. It’s worth asking, however, whether objects do have edges—and if they do, where they are to be located. The question is particularly potent in light of the digital, where the nature of the object implicates arrays and networks as well as the quiddity of the monad and the singular. In my presentation for the “Extreme Conservation” symposium at Bard Graduate Center, I invited participants to focus with me on objects at their edges—things found at temporal, ontological, and material extremes—and reflect on ways the digital both critiques and observes multiple, impinging materialities. What constitutes objecthood with digital things, which are wont to complicate themselves within themselves and one another?

I was eager to carry such questions to the “Extreme Conservation” symposium at Bard Graduate Center. Conservation, after all, concerns itself with the maintenance of objects in extremis—if by this we mean not only objects pushed to the limits of their integrity, but objects as things with edges, things with many points of contact with the ever-changing world. Digital objects are virtual objects; digital objects are material objects; digital objects are cultural objects. These three observations, which if not mutually contradictory seem at least discontinuous, in fact are salient and interoperable in the context of the digital; any attempt to apply principles of conservation to such objects must address them all. In my presentation, I explored three very different cases of digital objects—a single-line program in a 1980s programming language, the software that ran the Apollo Guidance Computer, and the digitally-produced, materially-realized facsimile of Veronese’s 1563 Wedding at Cana—suggesting them as handy examples for understanding the interposition of virtual, material, and cultural dimensions in digital objects.

These examples suggest four considerations for addressing the conservation of digital objects. In the first instance, we must consider the forensic nature of the digital, where conservation may have as much to do with mapping connections, documenting traces, and contextualizing objects in their chronological aspect, as with stabilization or preservation. A second consideration recasts fragility as performativity: we’ve often thought of digital objects as radically ephemeral, but it’s better to think of crucial aspects of them as performances, insofar as they consist of multiple personae called upon to act in dominant and supporting roles, following scripts composed according to strict protocols. A third consideration involves the dialogue between preservation and emulation: we need to keep and conserve unique machines and artifacts of computational materiality, while understanding that emulation—the simulation of past systems—also serves helps to preserve crucial elements of the design, performance, and meaning-making powers of digital objects. A final consideration returns us to objects and their edges, acknowledging the legacy of the Alan Turing and his theory of the universal machine. Digital objects have uncanny relations to the world; they make worlds and are made within them, in a turtles-all-the-way-down fashion. Decisions about how to define those edges—about first and last turtles—have practical consequences, which can be described in critical, curatorial, and philosophical keys as well.

Matthew Battles is the Associate Director of metaLAB at Harvard University.