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Get to Know Berkman Klein Fellow Mindy Seu

a spotlight on one of our 2018-2019 BKC Fellows

Juliana Castro headshot

Skyler Sallick headshot

by Juliana Castro & Skyler Sallick

This interview is part of a collaborative effort between the summer 2018 BKC interns and the Communications team to showcase the tremendous work and backgrounds of our 2018 -'19 BKC fellows.

Berkman Klein Center Summer Interns Skyler Sallick and Juliana Castro spoke at length with Mindy Seu, a 2018-19 Fellow at BKC, about her archival digitization philosophy. The chat focused on how archival microsites have the ability to widen access to the documentation of histories and what that means in terms of how we operate within an online world. Watch a short video or read the full interview below to learn more about how this conversation.

 

Read more stories from our Interns and Fellows!

 

Hi, I’m Mindy Seu. I am currently a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the concentration “Art, Design, and the Public Domain”. I am also a Summer Fellow at the Internet Archive and an incoming Fellow at the Berkman Klein Center. Before starting school, I worked as an interactive installation designer at a studio called Two by Four. I was also a designer at the in-house studio at the Museum of Modern Art. I also taught an experimental web design course at California College of the Arts in San Francisco. I moved into this archival niche because, even though my background is graphic design and even though I care deeply about user experience and interfaces, my interest in archives came because I want to use the Internet the way that I think others should use it. We should focus on crediting people. We should focus on attribution. We should focus on creating robust collections online instead of something that’s completely superficial. You can do that by focusing on the interface and by talking to people whose voices typically aren’t considered. So, design, UX, interface, all of that, is all a way to look into a larger ideological practice.

We should focus on crediting people. We should focus on attribution. We should focus on creating robust collections online instead of something that’s completely superficial.

Do you think you could please tell us a bit about your current projects at Internet Archive and how you see those in relation to your upcoming Berkman Klein Center fellowship?

Yes, my fellowship at the Internet Archives is just for the summer and will culminate in the Decentralized Web Summit, which will take place in late summer (July 31st to August 2nd). The goal of this Summit is to bring together a lot of the early Internet pioneers, as well as new decentralized web technologists to figure out how we might make a new decentralized or distributed network moving forward. Unlike the early Internet or the World Wide Web, which we currently use, we are pairing together technologists, social justice humanitarians, law, governance, and policy experts, as well as artists and creatives. The goal is to, this time around, have all four parties at the table, so we can figure out what we need to make a successful and inclusive online environment moving forward. Yes, that is a big ask for this summit. Additionally, we are trying to develop a taxonomy for how to describe these ideas to lay people, so everyone can see their place in a decentralized web. Ultimately, that relates to my work at Berkman because naturally, with decentralized protocols, each member is part of the architecture of a decentralized network. This means that, inherently, each person holds more responsibility in the actions and behaviors that they have online. Peer to peer might be easiest to describe as, for example, when you were younger: downloading music off of LimeWire or pirating movies. These are early examples of peer to peer that everyone recognizes. Going forward, if we can move beyond piracy, but also focus on peer to peer in terms of how we can remove third-party monopolies, then we can really develop and make sure every single person is an important node in this larger network. Furthermore, there is also built-in archiving, which segues into my larger goals at the Berkman Klein Center. Through built-in archiving, you are able to clone people’s sites. When you can seed someone’s site, you then have this original source that is really difficult to break. This is unlike our current World Wide Web where there is a lot of link rot and lack of attribution.

That’s so interesting, wow. So then, as you talk about this new decentralized web in terms of your progression, what do you ultimately hope to find in your research as a fellow at BKC?

My larger research goals at Berkman Klein Center are not necessarily involved with the decentralized web, though it is this foundational layer. My larger research goals relate primarily to the accessibility of archives. So, thinking about how we can gear local communities and people who maybe don’t know the technicalities of archival practice, to be able to document their own histories or respond to existing archives. To explain the various conditions with which they interpret that history and how they might change it. We are trying to push away from inherited knowledge and more towards talking about the conditions of our own experiences: seeing ourselves as constructing subjects.

We are trying to push away from inherited knowledge and more towards talking about the conditions of our own experiences: seeing ourselves as constructing subjects.

That obviously pairs with the governance and policy ordinances of the Center. So, what do you do about copyright use? How do you deal with fair use? How do you deal with attribution? Those things are inherent in these larger ideological questions.

Do you think you could explain what a microsite is? Why is it ultimately important to have a designer in an archive building project?

Yes, I feel like I use this metaphor a lot, but it works rather well. If you think of a library, which is the most comprehensive online archive you might think of like Archive.org, or Rhizome’s Webrecorder, or the Library of Congress, etc., then a microsite might be a book within that library, or rather, a series. So, the idea of a microsite is that if you have something embedded within a larger collection, it’s really hard to surface curated content. It’s really hard to show comprehensive material about that publication and it’s really hard to showcase the unique qualities of that publication because you have to use this templated version where you have to use the same book reader, you have to use the same meta tags, things like that. Then, for a microsite, you are able to make it as comprehensive as possible. You can show every page of every issue and you can use specialty tags, while also being able to invite curators or historians to comment on that publication and its relevance. It becomes a much more comprehensive view through a smaller lens, rather than a huge lens where this thing is just a drop in the water. And for designers, I think it’s important for them to be involved because it points to the digital humanities. Designers focus on interface, and how things are legible online or at least hold the voice of the original publication.

And for designers, I think it’s important for them to be involved because it points to the digital humanities. Designers focus on interface, and how things are legible online or at least hold the voice of the original publication.

I believe things should not involve a template, which is why microsites are particularly important to me. Designers are able to work with these historians to make the interface or browsing experience unique to whatever publication you are looking at.

So how much, then, is UX part of your archival design philosophy?

User experience people usually connotes to screen-based interactions. If you think of a UX designer, you assume that they are thinking about user flows - about how users move through websites or applications. But more broadly, user experience relates to how we navigate the physical world. Every single interaction you might have involves some sort of experience, so I like to think of it in that broader sense. Then, thinking about UX within these online spaces, you can try to relate it to physical experiences. Typically, when you are moving through an online library or an online archive, you lose the sense of serendipitous discovery that you might have in a physical library because everything is so flat, there is no depth on the screen. What I mean by that is, if you go to a library you have bookshelves nested next to each other, you have shelves stacked on top of each other, you have books buried in bins, you have books in vitrines, there are all these different levels of hierarchy. You naturally stumble upon things really easily and that’s something that is very difficult to do that in a continuous scroll. If you, then, try to embed this serendipitous discovery into an interface, how do you then make it mirror like the physical act of searching in a library or on shelves or stumbling upon things that are sitting next to each other?

Wow, so then how do you approach format differences? You talked a little about this, but could you perhaps explore Herb Lubalin’s archive or how you have combated this issue?

Yes, I think the Herb Lubalin archival microsite is a good example of this. Even though, obviously, there are things that we might change retroactively, what’s nice about an online archive is that it’s never complete.

Even though, obviously, there are things that we might change retroactively, what’s nice about an online archive is that it’s never complete.

You can always update it or add multiple fields. However, I think in its current form, the two primary things that are good examples of what I see as serendipitous discovery are quote-unquote: a normal book reader, if you go to archive.org or Library of Congress or any library, you have full page scans of every page of the issue, which is nice, but you then have to click through every single page. That clicking action might seem simple, but it builds over time if you are looking through a 500-page manuscript for something it can really prevent browsing quickly. The easiest way to fix that is to change the vertical scroll format to a horizontal scroll, so you can easily scroll through, browse what you need, but then you can also stop and look comprehensively at a single page. The index view of that site also shows a thumbnail of every single page of every single issue, which you don’t typically have in a library setting or in an online library setting where you might have an index of text links, which is still quite useful. Lastly, you have all these push drawers. If you were to open up any of the panels, it shrinks all of the page content, but you can always see what’s on the page at any time.

So, then thinking about the importance of archival work, especially in terms of the design of microsites, what do you think is the most important medium/topic area/time period to archive when considering the impact that can end up having on society through the act of bringing history forward?

I honestly think it’s about showing the relationships between things that are happening today and how that connects with things in the past. It’s difficult for an archive to show something beyond a silo because institutional archives have this walled garden that is only accessible to a certain group of people, typically students or faculty, or you need some sort of membership or payment plan. So, if you then move to the opposite side of that, and you invite local communities or people who don’t have the training to archive their histories, how can you then connect them to these larger historical frameworks and show the pairings between present day and past? If you are able to create a network of archives, you are able to show the connections between certain cultural moments or historical moments. So, you can connect an archive of a local community with some section of a larger institutional archive to some conditional cultural aspect of a smaller additional archive. Then, you can show this larger relationship and show that there are a lot of similarities between these different demographics. It’s important to not just silo it and say that this history is specific to this community and that’s it. Everyone is quite interrelated.

How do you think this is going to change research and the ways in which we perceive history in terms of primary source access?

If anything, it validates the voices of people who would not be considered valid or legitimate in certain settings. A good example of this is Wikipedia. When Katherine Maher came as a Berkman speaker, she was talking about how the user base for Wikipedia is constantly growing. Which is great, but it always tends to come from a very similar demography. This makes it difficult for communities who don’t follow that same path to make their histories seem more legitimate. For example, if you have text on Wikipedia you have to cite it through an article or journal for it to be considered valid, but with communities or histories that use oral histories then you can no longer use this method of validation. This means that you then can’t put it on this larger community-sourced website, which is really difficult because we have to question these westernized ideas of what is considered legitimate in the eyes of historical subjects. People are already questioning this, and I think it’s really about consolidating this research and making it more global.

How do you see things like the magazine industry or primary source research shifting over the next decade or so due to archival accessibility and digitization efforts? What do you think is essential to hold onto from a paper world? Do you think there is anything that should change in terms of the format of how we access information and think about these questions through the presumed digitization of media like magazines or primary sources? Do you think that society has the potential to gain or lose benefits that relate to the cultural impacts of physical archival materials? From a western perspective, do you think that archival digitization will open up our gaze of history? Moreover, do you think that there are certain things that we should hold onto from our paper past as we progress into this digital world?

I think what’s quite nice about a magazine industry is that you ultimately have something that cannot be edited. While before I was saying that was a pro, I think in this case, we need to have access to something that is concrete and something that cannot be edited retroactively. That physical link can at least act as a solid foundation. You can always add an addendum later, but with a physical artifact, it takes longer to figure out what would go into an issue, so maybe you are less quick to publish. I think the speed of publishing makes it really difficult to have access to proper fact-checking and to not have to play into this echo chamber where you are just trying to get someone to click quickly. So, the slowness of print - maybe this is a reductive view - but I do think is a benefit moving forward. In terms of materials, you can also think of primary source materials as materials that are more precious. With something like newspapers, which are mass produced/easy to print etc. and are essentially waste in that everything you can get from a printed newspaper is really easy to just throw onto a website, how can you make books feel different? You might consider making them precious objects by thinking about the production and thinking about the paper quality to separate even more from this very ephemeral online publication. We have to separate those two ideas more, instead of just plopping physical pages onto the screen and thinking about how to showcase the benefits of both. They are two different media, so we should treat them as such.

You were talking about how print cannot be edited and then in this online world right now, with fake news being so important to talk about and understand, especially in terms of the potential to augment video; videos being something that we take as truth. If you watch a video of a politician speaking we think that confirms what was said, but this is something that can actually be augmented now, so how does that play into archives? How do you begin starting a discussion around these ideas so that we can ultimately begin to create norms and values that clarify digital literacy? Can we foster a community in which people coming into this new digital world are able to create an understanding of the importance of legitimacy in what is put online? Especially with regards to the pieces that are archived from the past? So that they are not edited, and we take them as is and if we do want to edit them, we do it in a very specific way that, again, has norms and values?

That ties into embedding digital literacy into younger education, so if you see futureoffakenews.org radioLAB which recently did a whole piece where they talked about Adobe Macs and how you can record someone speaking and each syllable can be put into a database that you can then remix and make, for example, President Obama say whatever you want. That makes things extremely dangerous, but it’s only because this manipulation of video is very new. In our current day, if something in a photograph looks wrong, the mass public will say something. I think it’s about how things cannot be taken at face value and that we have to dig deeper into the nuances of its context; how it was released when it was released, and who may have released it. You can do the same thing for video as well. I don’t think we should jump to this dystopian value where now nothing is valid and now everything online is fake, we just have to teach people and embed within their norms and values what we can accept as fact and how we can use active consumption to gauge whether something is true or not, rather than just believing everything that is shown to us.

 

I don’t think we should jump to this dystopian value where now nothing is valid and now everything online is fake, we just have to teach people and embed within their norms and values what we can accept as fact and how we can use active consumption to gauge whether something is true or not, rather than just believing everything that is shown to us.

To end more on a more curious note, do you archive things yourself? Do you archive your own stuff? Since you spend so much time focusing on things that would just go away, are you reluctant to throw things out? Do you hold onto little papers or letters? So much of your work is focused on saving all of these physical materials, how does that translate into your daily life?

So even though I am very interested in archives, I actually have a personal fear of acquiring objects. Maybe this is why I am so keen on digitization and those methods of preservation. Earlier, when I was talking about active versus passive consumption, it is important to realize that we are already adopting platforms that automatically archives our information for us, whether we give them permission or not. Suddenly that ease of use prevents us from taking active measures and saving our memories, right? So, if we then move to this world where we are able to build our own platforms and figure out our own archival forms, then maybe we would have more care in creating our personal narratives rather than just having these timelines that are created for us. There are these new applications that allow you can put hardware on your kitchen table and it will take photos of moments in your life.

YES, I have heard of this and I don’t know how I feel...

Yes, so people say “yeah that’s a great idea! We can have these candid moments,” but they are forgetting about the authorship that is embedded within family photos and family videos. A mother or father or parent actively chose to document this moment with this composition and that voice. We can’t say that’s not important and then let it be done through machine learning. We have to pair it with the personality and the personhood of the people who they are documenting. I feel like that should be the same moving forward. We should try to reduce the sea of data to something that is more humane. We are not just points and data on a graph. I think it’s important to remember that for all archives.

Going off of that in terms of the cognitive neuroscience aspect, and the theory that the coming generation doesn’t have legitimate memories from childhood, that they think that they have memories, but they are just experiences that stem from photographs, how do you see that translating into archives? So then, what if we ultimately view history through that same lens? From the standpoint of if this is digitally archived, is this going to be our only understanding of a time period? What kind of responsibility does that hold the archival designer to?

The people who create the archive hold a lot of responsibility, that’s quite clear. I think that moving beyond the responsibility, it’s more important to embed this critically within how people engage with these archives on online platforms. It’s not just the responsibility of one person, it’s the responsibility of both.

The people who create the archive hold a lot of responsibility, that’s quite clear. I think that moving beyond the responsibility, it’s more important to embed this critically within how people engage with these archives on online platforms. It’s not just the responsibility of one person, it’s the responsibility of both.

So, whether you are reading information or creating that information, the production of knowledge needs to be analyzed from both perspectives. That’s where the inherited knowledge versus response to conditions comes in. We cannot assume that one person’s voice is correct. We have to analyze that with our own conditions and see ourselves as these constructing subjects in this larger timeline.

 

Read more about our Open 2019 - '20 Fellows Call for applications!

Interviewers

Juliana Castro

Juliana Castro is a recent graduate from the MFA in Design at the University of Texas at Austin. She completed her undergrad in Colombia, where she is originally from. Juliana also studied for a year in the north of Italy. At the Berkman Klein Center, Juliana worked as an intern with the Harvard Open Access Project during the summer of 2018.

Skyler Sallick

Skyler Sallick is a sophomore at Claremont McKenna College in California. Prior to that, she graduated from Phillips Academy, Andover. Skyler worked with the Berkman Klein Center Youth and Media team during the summer of 2018.