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1.13 Ethics and new technology

George Boston

At the technical symposium - "Technology and Our Audio-Visual Heritage" - held at the National Film Theatre in London at the end of January 1995, I was persuaded by my colleagues on the Organising Committee to say a few words about "Ethics" as they affect technicians handling sounds and moving images. My words were quoted several times during the three days of the Symposium by speakers. The Symposium concluded with a panel discussion on the topic "Where Next? The Future of A-V Archiving". One of the panelists, Clyde Jeavons, Curator of the National Film and Television Archive in London, observed that ethics seem to be considered only when change is imminent. On reflection, I realised that he is probably right.

My dictionary defines ethics as "The science of morals, being that branch of philosophy which is concerned with human character and conduct; a system of principles and rules of conduct". This article will, at the risk of becoming a sermon on the subject, discuss some of the concerns about New Technology that people are labelling "Ethical".

I restrict myself to discussing documents that are to be copied to preserve the information because the original information carrier has decayed to the point where it is unrealistic to attempt to preserve it. If the original is in good condition, there is no need to copy to preserve. Copy made for access or as a safety copy are not necessarily subject to the same ethical considerations.

The increasing interest in using digital techniques to create copies of documents has also created concern about the ethical standards to be applied to such copying. Modern technology offers many powerful tools to alter the information when copying a document. Without a generally accepted set of guide-lines - an ethical base - to work from, everybody making copies will apply their own rules. These will, inevitably, frequently be subjective decisions.

Most of the concern is centred on the need to copy information from existing carriers to new carriers. This is not a new worry. The monks in the Scriptoria of the monasteries working at the production of the magnificent mediaeval illuminated manuscripts were, I am sure, at times tempted to alter the wording of texts to enable a page to be better presented visually. I am equally sure that they were constrained by the realisation that the over-riding need was to transmit the information on the pages of the Bible accurately to future generations. The same basic constraint must be applied to any archival copying of original material.

Modern copying does, however, give rise to several additional layers of concern. The monks only copied the words on the page and not the stains that may have accumulated. Modern copies can include the words plus the stains, watermarks, comments in the margins etc. With sound recordings, the hiss, clicks and bumps and with moving images and photographs the scratches and other blemishes can also be copied. This additional information is part of the history of the document.

If we examine the world of art and painting we find a constant debate in progress about the results of restoring pictures. Some people like the bright, fresh colours re-discovered under centuries of accumulated grime. Others say that the artists anticipated the gloom cast by generations of smoking candles and oil lamps and call the restorers vandals. Who is to say which group is right?

There is also concern about defining where the dirt ends and the paint begins. This is, in practice, a subjective decision by the team of restorers working on the painting. A major argument is currently raging in the letters columns of the British press about the loss of parts of Holbein's painting "The Ambassadors". This is undergoing extensive cleaning and restoration in the workshops of the National Gallery. As a result of removing the dirt and the work of previous restorers, it appears that large sections of the painting - over 10% of the area - now consist of the underpaint coat only.

While it is clear that what remains is by Holbein and not by later hands, no-one is quite sure that what has been removed was not by Holbein.

With the creation of digital copies of documents we are often in the fortunate position of not being required to physically restore the original before copying. Provided that a generally accepted code of conduct for the copying process can be agreed, the process of copying to the digital domain should not create the same intense debate that so frequently rages through the art world.

To frame a code of conduct to define a standard of copying may, at first sight, appear difficult. Fortunately there is at least one precedent for such a code of conduct. The International Association of Sound Archivists have defined three levels of fidelity for archival standard copies of sound documents. By widening these definitions to be non-specific as to carrier, the base for the construction of a set of ethical guide-lines may be laid.

1. The Replica - an exact, three dimensional copy of the original document using the same materials as the original. This is possible for some carriers; for example, a new long-playing disc could be pressed using the original metal masters. For others it is impossible. Except for particularly important documents, this is not a practical proposition.

2. The Historical Copy - a copy looking or sounding exactly like the original document with all the blemishes, imperfections etc. reproduced as faithfully as the primary information. Many documents can have digital copies made that meet this standard.

3. Recreation of the Original Document - a copy that has been restored by removing all distortions, blemishes, annotations etc. to give the observer what was seen or heard by the creator of the document. This requires the application of physical or electronic restoration techniques during the copying of the document. As with the debates in the art world, whose opinion about the restoration is the correct one?

For the purposes of setting a copying standard that can be used as a base from which to define a set of ethics, the Historical Copy is the only one that is practical. It is an achievable copying standard and does not require any subjective decisions. The copy made is either an accurate copy of the original, warts and all, or it is not.

An ethical statement can, therefore, be simply framed. An archival or master or preservation copy of a document must contain all the information present in the original. This will include the primary information - the texts, the images, the sounds intended by the creator of the original document - together with any annotations, water-marks, blemishes, clicks, scratches etc. accumulated over the years.

If this copy was made in the analogue domain, it would not be possible to avoid further decay. A digital copy can, however, be repaired by means of error correction algorithms. By this means, the information is effectively frozen in place.

This does not mean that the information should never be altered. There are circumstances when it is necessary to modify an access copy or a copy being made for mass distribution. It may be necessary to apply data-reduction techniques to a digitised access copy of a document to fit it into the available storage space. For example, to fit a movie into the storage available on a CD with high levels of data reduction that will render the pictures suitable for use only as a low-grade access copy.

This is not of concern, provided that the original document is preserved in full-fidelity. There are thousands, if not millions, of copies of da Vinci's Mona Lisa. The original is not harmed in the slightest by their existence.

The archivists, librarians and technicians working with original documents must work to the same standards of copying as the monks in the Scriptorium. In other words, copying what is there with no additions or subtractions. It is the task of those making copies to transmit to future generations the information that is available now. It is not their task to decide what portion of the information is valid and should, therefore, be preserved and what can be erased.


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