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Towards the Probability Archive

Hong Kong.
The final speaker in this opening session of The Internet Turning 40 is my CCI colleague John Hartley, who argues for a shift towards new understanding of archives: in the modern time, they were characterised by galleries and museums as archives of essence, collected and curated by professional experts - of actual things. In postmodernity, broadcast TV systems provided a mediated archive through time-based, intangible objects; today,we have probability archives containing digital and virtual objects online, co-curated by users and containing objects whose status and existence is undetermined.

This shift can also be described as a change in theories of causation: essence archives are based on objectivity theory, while probability archives are organised according to quantum theory. So, for example, the British Archive contains a 2 million year old stone chopping tool - a tangible object; similarly, broadcast television provides a choice of large-scale public experiences which are shared by a large but unknown community of other viewers.

As capitalism accelerated with the move of productivity from physical objects to information, and with the acceleration of ideas to postmodern speed, where signifiers became detached from signifieds, the real dissolved - reason was taken to the extremes of deconstruction, and we transitioned to probability theory. We now encounter the probability archive, characterised today especially by YouTube, which is driven by a new philosophy of collecting - compiling found objects contributed by a large number of participants, and added and removed at a rapid pace; thus, YouTube is an unreliable archive that changes constantly: random, unreliable, uncertain, and evolving.

This probability is only possible because it is not managed on the level of the individual item - a self-organising system of increasing but managed complexity which is also used to signal and share personal identity through found objects (many of them copyright material). Where the real, in essence archives, must be narrated by experts, this model breaks down with plenitude (not all the stone chopping tools found in the world can be exhibited in museums, for example, and some museums are now offering classes in making stone tools, for example).

The necessary replacement is a search logic - we rely on search (or rather, find) engines to sift through the plenitude to find the information we seek, from within the probability archive of an impressively large system. This is a particular problem for humanities scholars - we tend to prefer a close analysis of meaning, examine aspects of individual identity, and focus on how 'the human' constitutes itself from within; none of these scale very well, and are better suited to essence than probability archives.

We need to move from animistic (individual) and modern impersonal (systematised) models of thought to a new model that understands organised, systematic, and predictable processes at a very large scale. We must embrace probability, take a quantum understanding of uncertainty and risk, and develop and evolutionary approach to the dynamics of change in meaning, identity, and the human.

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