Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The good that culture on the web does

I'm looking forward to the C4-sponsored 2Together conference which is bringing together 'visionaries' (and wannabees like me) to explore how digital technologies can solve bigger problems. I've been nudging the organisers to ensure that there is a slot or current exploring the triangulation of culture, digital technologies and solving the bigger problems.

There is a bit a gulf between movements for good and the cultural sector, which is not to say that culture doesn't have a contribution to make. Part of the reason for the gulf is the resistance to instrumentalism in the arts sector, and perhaps a sense that culture is elitist and indulgent amongst the social good and charities sectors. I want to bridge that gulf and show that this polarised view of each other is out of date, and that digital technologies play a key role in this shift.

So, if the conference is going to touch on culture at all, I'd better get on and come up with some suggestions. The trouble is, where to start. Culture is so broad, from popular contemporary creativity to archived information and documenting passing knowledge, not forgetting the work of museums and arts organisations. Do parts of culture do more good than others? Does it do more good if it gets spread more widely and involves more people in participation? Is the internet as a cultural ark (e.g. as in the collecting of dying tribal languages) the strongest force for good? Is that task worthwhile, or should we focus on fostering new ways of thinking to solve the huge global problems we face?

Any good examples? Any ideas?

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

What happens next?

I went to a really stimulating breakfast event at the new One Alfred Place club
It was about digital futures of traditional media and the speakers were all challenged to talk about what happens next.
First up was Jeremy Ettinghausen from Penguin. He confessed to be responsible for the worst novel in history, the 'wikinovel'. He has also created the more successful, which brings well known writers together with game designers. He said this was only a toe in the water, not an indication of Penguin's future publishing direction. However, he was more positive about e-books, predicting that this year they could take off. A question: Is reading on the internet fundamentally changing the way we access information? There does seem to be evidence that we are shifting from reading a linear narrative to a fragmentary and skipping experience. Publishers will have to become editors and marketers of ideas and entertainment, not so much of books. It's about storytelling not paper....towards the integrated book.

Kevin Anderson, the blogs editor for the Guardian, being from the US gave lots of US examples. His role is about taking the tools that are disrupting their business model and applying them to their job. Newspapers are old not new. Young people are not reading papers. Newspaper companies need to become news companies, and look for new markets. With free open-source web tools, the cost of failure is almost zero and the speed of development can be very fast. The Guardian will need to start using such tools more as they currently take 6-12 months to develop a new product, which then quickly dates. He talked about how the most successful parts of the paper are the parts for specific communities of interest (localities, food, sport, professions etc). People are less needy of the comprehensive spread of publicly ordained news. A US paper has just gone to a bi-weekly print, but with daily online updates. Another US paper is a freesheet that combines content from staff and from the online communities.

Matt Locke is the commissioning editor for Channel 4 education.
I found him most interesting because he has been an artist and curator, and he referred to museum and gallery experiences and new media. He described how our notions of public and private had broken down, that we have reconceived them as the personal and the social. The interconnections between the personal and social are far more dynamic and fluid than existed between private and public. Media companies (and educators, museums etc) will have to engage with those new vernacular techniques that we have to use to shift register from one to the other. Young people can't believe that there was a time, perhaps only ten years ago, that if you wanted to speak in public you needed permission. (I was wondering at that: For all of the many projects funding 'youth voice', young people may ironically need it less than adults who are not using the media that empowers their voice.) He went on to talk about how we develop this ability to shift register through playfulness. For example, when cameras first became accessible in the earlier 20th Century, people began to play with photography, showing themselves in diverse relationships with one another and in varieties of status and situation. This complexity of identity and relationship is evidenced today by the way young people manage many different file categories of friends in MSN or Facebook.

The challenge for new media (especially that evolving from old media organisations) is to flip easily from the personal to the social. What looks playful and trivial is actually the most meaningful in pointing the way forward. He never does any of C4's web projects on but on Bebo and My Space. "If we build a grand edifice, branded C4, the young people we are trying to reach just wouldn't come."

That's a pretty useful insight for museums too.

Science exhibitions and climate change

This Guardian blog post by Bibi van der Zee describes taking her children to the Science of Survival exhibition (currently at the Science Museum in London) which is a fantastically playful and high tech experience, exploring the future in which we will need to survive with climate change. She says they loved it, but asks whether it was really successful at teaching them about climate change. I just wrote a brief response to the post, as we had written the accompanying family and schools learning resources.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

MLA and HLF views on 21st C Curation

I went to a seminar at UCL last night, to hear Roy Clare, CEO of the MLA and Carole Souter, CEO of HLF talking about the future, the funding context and how their respective bodies will contribute to curation in the 21st Century. I'm not going to supply a full transcript of the event, but have picked up a key issue about digital strategy.

Carole Souter insisted that the HLF would not fund digitisation (only 'real people doing real things'). She conceded that there could be some catchy, engaging digital culture projects, for example the Tate's campaign inviting the public to buy a brushstroke of a painting. A questioner asked 'Call me naive, but surely if digitisation is what we are crying out for, why do you make these restrictions?' The response was 'We're getting tough with people. You have to look at the breadth of our aims. We're an additional funder, not a funder of core activities. If you tell us that 200,000 more people are going to look at your website because of it, well, so what? How do you know they have really been engaged?' So, her suggestion was that if you are going to include digitisation into an HLF bid, it would have to involve people in specific thematic projects of local interest.

Roy Clare highlighted the NOF Digitise project as an example of where we went wrong in assuming that mass digitisation and online publishing of collections would be engaging. He said that when he (when at the National Maritime Museum) and partners were planning Port Cities 'Did we think about how anybody would ever find it? How they would engage with it?' His response seemed to suggest that we shouldn't do digitisation because these projects were difficult to market.

However, my argument would be that the NOF projects are an example of the limited thematic trap that the HLF approach to digital culture encourages. The Port Cities project may not be as successful as it could have been precisely because they made too much effort to define a theme, to define a collaboration between several museums, to focus on particular markets and so on.

What is needed is a flexible approach to digitisation that enables collection items to be presented in multiple thematic, social, institutional and technological contexts and to be interpreted in multiple ways and combined with other collections in multiple ways. Investment in a) the continuation of mass digitisation and b) in incubating approaches to tagging, indexing, syndicating are what we need now, and we should see this being championed as the core of 21st Century Curation by bodies such as MLA and HLF.

I posted this to the Museums Computer Group e-list and sparked off a pretty long thread of discussion, usefully summarised and responded to here by Jeremy (to whom thanks)