Science Fiction and Imagining Archival Futures

Science fiction has often paved the way for new technologies in how it stretches the imagination to envision creative possibilities that engineers and scientists strive to make a reality. Just in 2015, Greg and Jill Henderson invented the Hendo Hoverboard, realizing the dream of anyone who saw Back to the Future II and watched enviously as Marty McFly glided on his futuristic skateboard (Colin 2015). This week, I finally got around to watching Star Trek: Discovery and was both bemused and delighted by the spore drive navigation system – a method of instantaneous interstellar travel that combines organic life (fungal spores) with quantum physics. Yes, it’s ridiculous. But it also proposes a less ridiculous question: What potential does biology have for inspiring technologies of the future?

What if archives could be combined with organic processes to create a radical new method of preserving the past? John Ippolito’s chapter “Variable Organisms” looks towards a future of archival practice that takes inspiration from organic life and tries to practically imagine how it might work. He proposes that organic-based preservation systems, such as DNA, may be key for long-term, sustainable ways to record the past. Ippolito starts small, providing examples of contemporary artists, like John Davis, who have encoded and preserved their in genes. The rapid pace of gene replication has made Davis, as quoted by Ippolito, “the most published artist in history” (Ippolito 2014: 191). But what if we encoded the entire Library of Congress into a single DNA strand? Could our very bodies become the adaptable storage systems – the perfect emulators – for preserving knowledge long term?

It’s a really intriguing possibility. And, as both of the other readings we had for this week argue, there is already something inherently organic about in remembering and interpreting the past. Yannis Hamilakis challenges archaeologists to do more to incorporate the senses into their research, stressing that “bodily senses are fundamental for human social experience” particularly when it comes to understanding the past (Hamilakis 2014: 1). And the experimental, tangible table designed for the Museum of Anthropology’s c̓əsnaʔəm, the city before the city exhibition puts Hamilakis’ theory into practice. Visitors physically interact with the table-touchscreen, revealing how fragmented archaeological belongings, in conversation with contemporary objects, can highlight the intangible values the Musqueam peoples still hold (Muntean, et. al. 2015) Would an organic-based preservation system be better equipped to highlight how our bodily senses are caught up in memory?

Yet, as Ippolito himself points out, DNA is also incredibly prone to mutation and adaptation. With all their potential benefits, biological methods of archiving would require a comfort with change that I do not think traditional preservations have. But as science fiction has shown, perhaps it only takes a little bit more imagination.

Works Cited:

Chris Colin. 2015. “The Hoverboard Fantasy Comes True, Just As “Back to the Future” Predicted” in Smithsonian Magazine.

Ippolito, Jon. 2014. “Chapter 11: Variable Organisms.” in Re-Collection: Art, New Media, and Social Memory, edited by Richard Rinehart and Jon Ippolito. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Hamilakis, Yannis. 2014. Archaeology and the Senses: Human Experience, Memory, and Affect. Cambridge University Press. Introduction, Pp 1-15.

Muntean, Reese, Kate Hennessy, Alissa Antle, Susan Rowley, Jordan Wilson, and Brendan Matkin. 2015. “ʔeləw̓ksw – Belongings: Tangible Interactions with Intangible Heritage.” Journal of Science and Technology of the Arts 7 (2): 59–69.


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