2018 Geoffrey Bolton Lecture: Richard Foy

Digital Assimilation: Resistance is Futile!

Listen to the 2018 Geoffrey Bolton Lecture

The title of the 2018 Geoffrey Bolton Lecture reflected many of our current concerns about data breaches, information privacy, digital disruption and apparent societal dystopia. Delivered on Monday evening 12 November 2018, the Heath Ledger Theatre at the State Theatre Centre in Northbridge was the venue for this year's lecture. Mr Richard Foy, Chief Archivist and General Manager of Archives New Zealand, treated attendees to an entertaining but also thought provoking presentation. Drawing on his own personal and family history - as a boy who became engrossed with the TV program Star Trek in the 1970s, and as the grandson of a man who had to pay a poll tax which restricted Chinese immigration to New Zealand - he provided context and a compelling description of the issues that society is facing in this digital age.

Using Star Trek as a reference point he introduced the idea of the fictional alien Borg as a metaphor for digital assimilation, postulating various points and questions. Foy argued that digital technology allows us to interrogate the past and review the present. That digital technology has both benefits and risks. If resistance is futile what does that mean for privacy and security? He said the digital deluge is real but we need to work out what we need to capture. And will there be a digital black hole that we sometimes hear about? He likened the rise of social media and ephemeral data to fast food, saying we need more fruit and vegetables - that is we need archives and libraries. He also discussed the importance of records and archives as evidence and provided examples of the manipulation of digital records. What does this do to the evidential nature of archives?

Foy said that archives in all their forms, including paper and digital, give meaning to society and are part of the checks and balances in a democracy. Using New Zealand examples in their National Archives such as the Treaty of Waitangi, the 1835 Declaration of New Zealand Independence by Maori tribes, and the 1893 Women's Suffrage Petition, he made the point that these are not just historic documents but evidence of activities and events and have legal weight. Referring to the records compiled by the Stasi Secret Police in East Germany, he also expanded on how archives are not just about democratic institutions, but also about oppressive states – but that preserving these records ensures evidence and accountability are maintained when oppressive regimes fall.

Foy stated that archives should not be thought of “as just museums of paper”, and concluded that resistance to the digital world is somewhat futile. Children of today who are brought up in this digital world are citizens of the future. There is a need to provide an inter-generational connection with records and archives. In the future government archives won't be museums of paper but “cathedrals of data".

The 2018 Geoffrey Bolton Lecture was supported by: