Can Choosing The Wrong Video Format Cause Bodily Harm?

February 26, 2010

The relationship and interaction between humans and apes (a topic I’m sure my friends have much experience with) was the theme of last week’s episode of Radiolab on WNYC.

Images related to the story Lucy from Radiolab on Vimeo.

The whole episode is, as usual, quite good, but there is a poignant story at the end of the program, starting about 45 minutes in.

There’s a lot of background to the story, but the gist is that one day, two investigators at the Great Ape Trust, a research center that has raised a bonobo named Kanzi to communicate through various means, were arguing. Kanzi saw the argument and afterwards communicated with the director of research that, as the alpha male, he should go and bite the one investigator that had been arguing rather vehemently in order to put him in his place. The director said he couldn’t do that, so Kanzi threatened that if the investigator didn’t go bite the other one, he (Kanzi) would bite him, the man he was commanding to act.

The director didn’t do as he was told and went about his business. 24 hours later, the bonobo was being transported to an outside area. At this point he escaped from his handler and ran to the director’s office, bursting in and then biting his hand. The man ended up almost dying during surgery because of an allergic reaction and ultimately lost a finger.

At this point in the story, most people wonder what exactly this argument was about that caused this befingering, this violent dedigitization. The answer? The two investigators were arguing about the proper video format for archiving documentation of their research.


And I thought audiovisual archivists were the only ones who got that heated up about choosing formats!

Of course, being who I am, at this point in the story my mind leaps not to pondering the consequences of a bonobo bite, but rather skips directly over to the question of what video formats they were arguing about and which one they ultimately decided upon. The program gives no clue either way, and I’m left with a gnawing worry in my stomach about the end result.

But seriously, and not to take this man’s pain lightly, I find this to be an almost heartening story. First, it’s kind of nice to hear that people outside our small circle take archival issues into consideration and treat them as an important matter. Maybe that means that some of our efforts to inform the public about preservation issues are having an effect.

Second, there is solace in the fact that, no matter how much we argue back and forth about formats and archival best practices, when all is said and done at least we don’t bite each other’s fingers off… Though I think from now on I’ll keep my metal mesh gloves on when I publish these missives — you know, just as a standard safety precaution.

— Joshua Ranger