In this new digital age, the future is analogue

How can an 80-year-old institution persistently drive cultural innovation? It’s an interesting question, and one that Glenn Lowry, longtime director of the Museum of Modern Art, addressed in his recent lecture at the National Gallery of Australia. I don’t claim to have a solution, but I do want to draw attention to what I regard as an error, or oversight, in Lowry’s (and others’!) thinking – which I believe could clarify the problem, at least for the foreseeable future.

Lowry impressed the audience – myself included – with his enthusiastic embrace of technology for maintaining MoMA’s edginess.

Glenn Lowry in front of a screen illustrating the ways in which MoMA is 'doing digital'

And he secured my full attention with this next slide, on principles for working in the context of an increasingly complex and unpredictable world.

Glenn Lowry in front of a screen displaying a set of principles for the network age

The principles are borrowed from a presentation by Joi Ito, MIT Media Lab director. They are inspired by the fact that the modern industrial way of being in the world no longer works. Now that the means of production and distribution are accessible to almost anyone, the process – of business, culture and so on – is much more complex and difficult to control. How to adapt to these new circumstances is not yet clear but we do know that our survival depends on radical adaptation.

So we’re starting to revise our mental models of how the world works. Lowry talked about this shift with reference to two diagrams of the genealogy of modern art. First, he presented this 1936 diagram of cubism and abstract art, made by MoMA’s first director, Alfred Barr:

Glenn Lowry showing a slide on cubism and abstract art

He contrasted that with a diagram produced for MoMA’s 2012 exhibition, Inventing Abstraction:

Glenn Lowry presenting a slide showing the network diagram MoMA  made for its 2012 exhibition, Inventing Abstraction

In 1936, the mental model was was a linear and hierarchical genealogy; by 2012, it had become a dynamic, interconnected network. And the network model is useful because it accommodates complexity and cultivates lateral thinking.

It’s not that networks are new – the map is not the territory, right? The same artists were the subject of both diagrams; ecosystems and social systems have always operated through complex clouds of relationships; and – this is an obvious but critical point – there have always been peoples for whom the modern western scientific industrial model of the world is foreign and highly fraught (to say the least).

So what’s going on now is not an update of our mental models to fit a new world order. Rather, we’re having to let go of aspects of our customary (modern western) thinking in order to recognise the eternal fact of our network-connected reality. In this sense what’s happening now is a reversion to a pre-industrial epistemology, to a mental model that preceded and will supersede – at least in part – logical, binary oppositional thinking.

The troubling part – and this is the point to which I objected in Lowry’s talk – is that we conflate digital technologies with network thinking, and misidentify the outmoded model as analogical.

Wrong, wrong, wrong! Computers are built on binary logic; they are the quintessentially logical outcome of reductive, logical, binary oppositional, linear, hierarchical, mechanistic, modernist thought. Yes, they have levelled up, lately, so that our interfaces to them can now show an interactive web of connections; they have become adept at mapping networks. But in this, they are serving our aspiration for technology to transcend digital, to return us to our natural analogical milieux.

The excitement of 3D printing and the thriving maker movement are testament to this yearning for a futuristic analogue, but it’s more than that. Another clue is in the fact that for Lowry and for the thousands of New Yorkers who flocked to it, a standout MoMA exhibition was Marina Abramović’s The artist is present, where every day for the duration of the exhibition, anyone could go and sit with her, in silence. Abramović’s work is about the space between herself and the visitor, the dynamic, continuous gradient, the common ground, the humanity – it is precisely, I would argue, about the analogue.

We don’t need to learn to think digitally; we need to find ways to harness digital technologies in the service of enriching our analogical (interconnected, poetic, holistic, three-dimensional) experience of the world. That’s one way to describe my mission in making this game of analogy. And it seems like an ample agenda for any modern art museum keen to stay edgy in the next century.

Prescript

Here’s how I tried to express these ideas right after the lecture, in two tweets.

Create[d] World

A few thoughts from the recent Create World conference of clever, creative people.

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Panel on place and creativity – how does digital alter the way we think?

Architect Richard Kirk made the point that perspective drawing as a tool is only a few hundred years old, so we are yet to reap the full benefits of new additions to our creative lexicon, such as virtual worlds. Performance designer Anna Tregloan commented that some people can quite naturally translate a 2D image to imagine it in 3D space, but for others that will always be more difficult, so the theatre tradition of building a little model of the set may endure. Continuing the theme of how we translate human experiences into digital form, and whether we can learn to think in a hybrid way between digital and physical, creative innovator (?!) Hael Kobayashi described the process of making penguins dance for Happy Feet. Humans danced in a warehouse, each one wired for motion capture. A set of screens displayed the merger of their movements with the digital penguins, so the director and key creatives could see, in real-time, penguins dancing on an iceberg.

Keynotes on photography, animation and the active audience

Tom Ang‘s keynote was an entertaining blend of a romp through the history of photography, some behind-the-lens information about particular shots, and some philosophical observations about value and power in photography’s new world:

  • Photoshop has programmed us!
  • Boundaries of what is shareable have shifted.
  • The concept of the ‘still image’ is now a misnomer: they fade, zoom, slide – and fast. And the more abundant they become, the less we attend to each.
  • Because images are so abundant, there are no longer iconic images of world events. (I’m not convinced of this point. The process by which images become iconic has changed, but I reckon crowd wisdom will choose images over time. Note, for example, the twitter #ows discussion of iconic imagery, and the meme of the cop casually pepper-spraying seated protesters.)

Ian Taylor’s story of the success of Animation Research Ltd – and his team’s down-home methods – was awe-inspiring. But my strongest takeaway from his talk was the importance of taking your time to learn – ergo the immense value of free education. Which we no longer have.

As a longtime advocate for participatory approaches to cultural representations, I was very interested in Ernest Edmonds‘ talk on art and the active audience. My favourite parts:

  • Some early research found that babies less than one week old can learn – by controlling the turn of their head on the pillow – to switch a light on and off, and that once mastered, they become bored with it.
  • Our vocabulary for interaction is developing. For example, there are many different kinds of play: danger, competition, camaraderie, subversion, fantasy, sensation, captivation, difficulty, simulation. And so on!
  • Don’t assume that more is better. Performance and communication might be better with lower bandwidth. This is an intriguing point, and I wanted more from him on this. I wonder if he means, for example, that in some cases audio works better than video,   because it gets inside your head but doesn’t restrict your visual attention. Or that pixelated imagery like in Minecraft, works in part because it’s low-res, so the player can more actively/imaginatively inhabit the scene and the characters. In short, I suspect this point relates to the value of leaving space within a representation, for the audience to fill from their personal creative sources.

An audiovisual meditation on gold

Not your average academic conference, Create World includes a range of clever, creative performances. Of the four, this was my favourite – it’s an audiovisual meditation on the mineral gold, and it made my heart hum. (I recommend: go full-screen and use headphones or big speakers.)

The Solar Angel from abre ojos on Vimeo.

Other prezos

The quality of stream-session presentations was consistently good. I attended those on:

  • a multi-disciplinary creative technologies degree (Judit Klein, Auckland Uni of Technology)
  • iPads for music-making (Jamie Gabriel, Macquarie Uni)
  • an iPad app for assessing teachers of music, art and drama (Julia Wren & Alistair Campbell, Edith Cowan Uni)
  • EEG-mapping of artistic consumption and as artistic work (Jason Zagami, Griffith Uni)
  • a weather-data-generated sonic sculpture in Sydney (Kirsty Beilharz, Uni of Technology, Sydney)
  • kinaesthetic potential of educational gaming (Helen Farley & Adrian Stagg, Uni of Southern Queensland)
  • serious games (Tim Marsh, James Cook Uni)
  • digital research methods, including Wikipedia article-writing (Kerry Kilner, Uni of Queensland)
  • Playtime, an animated movie (Thomas Verbeek, Uni of Otago)
  • Ishq, an audiovisual work commissioned by the Art Gallery of New South Wales as part of its exhibition on Islamic art (Kim Cunio and Louise Harvey, Griffith Uni)

I presented – and have shared on the Museum’s Education blog – Gamifying relatedness: an iPad app-in-progress. Hearty thanks to Paris for his guest appearance.

Map of education innovation

In his TED talk on education innovation, Charles Leadbeater introduces a map of the territory based on two axes: sustaining/disruptive and formal/informal. He argues that most of our resources are concentrated in the first quadrant, but that globally, we need to invest energy in the fourth.

I liked the organising principles – it might be a very useful way to think about future projects. So I redrew it:

Diagram showing four quadrants of education innovation according to two axes: sustaining/disruptive and formal/informalIf you want, download a nice, scalable, printable PDF version (100kb).

In the neighbourhood

Applications are almost due for the Bold Ideas, Better Lives challenge.

I was thinking to submit an idea – something that came out of reading Steven Johnson’s book, Emergence. But I haven’t done enough research or had enough (as in, any!) feedback to know if it’s worthwhile. And I just realised that on top of writing a 1900-word intro to the idea, you’re meant to put in a 3-minute pitch. Then there’s the small issue that I’m not sure I’m keen to champion this idea to the point of implementation. I’d use it. I’d be happy if it worked! And I’d be more than willing to help make it manifest. But the idea of talking it up through the whole process of shortlisting and selection… Well, I’m probably just not that much of a champion. In that regard, anyway.

So instead, I offer the first 700 words of an idea to anyone who happens to read this, and hope for some (constructive) critical feedback, or at least some expressions of interest.

What is your idea? (100 words)

I’d like to strengthen communities by facilitating real-world interactions through an online hyper-local aggregator and hub. Enter The Neighbourhood – a platform for creating a directory, noticeboard and town square for residents, visitors, business-people and local government to exchange information and ideas about local conditions, events, opportunities and ideas. It would feed information about the weather, infrastructural and social issues, jobs, trade, community activities. It would invite and enable people to share goods, ideas, and media – in other words, to funnel relevant parts of our current activities for the benefit of the community around our physical home.

What is the social need or challenge your idea could address? (300 words)

City living can be isolating – especially in very car-oriented cities – and in many neighbourhoods people are almost unknown to each other, having very little contact. We have opportunities to share information, experiences, goods and ideas through workplaces, distributed networks of family and friends, and digital communities. But where we live is important; our local community is potentially a rich source of interaction. If we have a lost pet, or surplus home-grown zucchinis, if we are creating an art installation, or need a new footpath – in all these circumstances, a good outcome can depend on the quality of our local relationships. Our individual and communal wellbeing could be dramatically improved by a digital town square that facilitated real-world relationships. If we know each other better, we would be in a better position to take good care of each other – to look after our neighbours’ house, garden, or pets when we’re away; to look out for the neighbourhood children; to care for, listen to and learn from our old folk.

The Neighbourhood would build constructive real-world relationships – and thereby improve collective wellbeing – through a simple and useful aggregation of relevant information, and hub for activity both online and in physical space. As well as the community benefits, an actively engaged community would be advantageous for businesses and governments. For businesses, it would constitute a highly effective channel for communicating with residents, promoting local products and services, and tailoring them in accordance with feedback. As the dawn of Government 2.0 approaches, access to a hyper-local community network would also be highly beneficial for two-way communications – genuine dialogue – to identify priorities, refine policies and so on.

The Neighbourhood would cultivate goodwill and generate social capital.

What inspired you to come up with your idea in the first place? (300 words)

This idea was inspired by Steven Johnson’s book Emergence. He looks at how swarms or networks operate in micro-organisms, insect colonies, human cities and the internet, and finds that at every scale – and in the absence of a master planner – local interactions suffice to bring about emergence – a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

I was thinking about this notion of emergence in relation to my own neighbourhood. I live on the main street in a suburb of Canberra, where although people do walk past, most traffic is motorised and, particularly on Friday nights, vandalism and ‘criminal damage’ are common. (I know this from experience but also because my street makes a regular appearance in the Neighbourhood Watch newsletter.) I don’t believe people are the problem here. I think our cities and lifestyles are serving us poorly, and we need a solution based on goodwill rather than fear. Surely, the more we interact locally, the better off as a community we’ll be.

Steven Johnson has in fact implemented a similar idea in Outside In – a platform for aggregating hyperlocal news, blogs and discussion. From my perspective, however, it is limited in that it’s not focused on the physical world except insofar as it uses location to organise the news feeds, and it’s not intended to facilitate interaction, only to supply information.

I’m actually surprised there isn’t yet a thing such as The Neighbourhood already. Aggregation; social media; cloud computing; we-think; and emergence – all these capacities enhance our potential to improve the way physical neighbourhoods operate. It seems we could all benefit by augmenting our physical communities with a digital overlay – by using our digital networks to enhance and empower our local communities. Such would be the point of The Neighbourhood.

Cultural lessons from the crowd in the cloud

In the last couple of weeks I’ve encountered some great insight into and evidence of the potential effect of large public networks on the work of making cultural assets accessible. It has come from two separate sources – Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, but also the first ever public conversation between Wikimedia and the GLAM sector (galleries, libraries, archives and museums).

I haven’t finished the book yet, so my focus here is on what the GLAM sector might take away from the conference (although no doubt the book is infiltrating my thinking.) The following points are not neatly sewn-up instructional lessons, and of course, people will disagree, but I believe the following are important considerations for those of us working to make cultural assets accessible online.

1. A completely different process of authorisation

I heard a lot of talk about how Wikipedia lacks authority and I heard a lot of what seemed like fear that its perceived dodginess would infect cultural institutions and jeopardise their authority. Well, for me, an almost opposite view is far more compelling.

Cultural institutions hold in their collections assets that have authority because they are original sources. No question; nothing will jeopardise that. And academic research accrues authority through the process of peer review, or by being written by someone who has accrued authority in the course of their professional career.

Wikipedia has an entirely different relationship with authority. Its articles are by definition, necessarily and absolutely not original research. And yes, Wikipedia editing is amateur. But the amazing thing is that Wikipedia articles can achieve a form of authority by virtue of the fact that the community of editors (which includes anyone who wants to be in it) finds a neutral, consensus position, and the article settles into relatively stable content. That stability is a genuine, honourable form of authority. It is not invested through credentials but emerges – and continues to emerge – out of open dialogue. And because Wikipedia gives voice to the community rather than to an individual or institution, in my view, Wikipedian authority is of great value.

I’m not suggesting that Wikipedia is the only source we need. On the contrary, it is vital to check the original sources, to seek out other sources (including primary sources!), to read critically and to adopt your own position. But Wikipedia is an excellent starting point. How many of us would deny that we regularly use it?! And the fact that Wikipedia content must be verifiable – cite and refer readers to reliable sources – positions it very well as a potential partner for cultural institutions.

2. A horde of willing and able enthusiasts

The arresting image below resides in the German Federal Archive but now – along with almost 100,000 others – it also resides in the Wikimedia Commons.

A photograph from the German National Archives via Wikimedia, June 1942 – Deutsches Bundesarchiv (German Federal Archive), Bild 183-N0619-506

Jewish women with yellow star, Paris, June 1942 – from the German Federal Archive via Wikimedia – Deutsches Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-F000136-0009

It’s there because Mathias Schindler negotiated a deal with the Bundesarchiv, by which the archive would release 100,000 images into the public domain, and in return, Wikipedians would help by describing the photographs and matching person data (authority files – the A-word again!) in three places – German Wikipedia, National Archive and National Library.

As an employee of a federal archive, I am acutely conscious of the scale of the work involved in description and digitisation – core tasks usually prerequisite to making cultural assets accessible. Anything with the potential to distribute this load must be worth exploring. That way, more culture can be shared more widely which is, of course, the point.

The experience of the National Library of Australia in soliciting bulk text enhancement – via its wonderful Australian Newspapers project – provides further evidence that the public can be relied upon to do a mammoth amount of good work in enhancing OCR’d microfilm.

3. More accessible doesn’t seem to mean less profitable

And importantly, evidence is amassing at the Powerhouse Museum that increasing the accessible reach of your photographs, through the Flickr Commons, has a massive impact on how many people see and tag your images, but very little effect on image sales.

So…

In short, unlike Angelina, I came away from GLAM-wiki feeling fairly enthusiastic – like Gerard – about the possibilities for partnership.

A Government 2.0 idea – first, make all the functions visible

Senator Kate Lundy’s Public Sphere forum this week was exciting, not least because amongst all the compelling presentations, the Government 2.0 Taskforce was announced. Its role is not only to help the government navigate into the future of greater transparency and collaboration, but also to fund projects to the same end. So what might the taskforce fund? Well, here’s an idea, and a fairly fundamental, simple one at that.

Last night I watched Us Now, a film that makes a great case for how a distributed, collaborative approach can trump a top-down approach in ventures ranging from commercial money-lending to selecting players for a football team to allocating government funds. (An aside: I was struck by how accepting the model railway guys were of the crowd-sourced decision, even though it denied them any council funding. As one of them said – I’m paraphrasing – he had had his eyes opened up to all the other worthy projects, and he was satisfied that the process had been fair. Key point: transparent, collaborative decision-making is satisfying, even when you don’t get what you want.)

Because there seem to be so many areas of government policy and service that might be improved by some citizen collaboration, I started to wonder where those possibilities end. What are the limits to Government 2.0? Of course, the best way to answer that question would be to ask the people. What do you want a say in? And how?

For me, there are many potential points of intervention. My first thoughts are rather trivial – we could ban sticky labels on fruit! And rid the country of those horrid robo-loos that have taken over where public toilets used to be. But I’d also appreciate a say in more serious and complex things like immigration policy, climate change targets, and so on. No doubt there would be many other issues that I’d like to vote on, if I was offered the choice. The tricky part is knowing all the options – being aware of all the ways in which governments shape our environments, cultures and experiences.

The thing is, in order for people to answer the question ‘What do you want a say in?’ – in order for us to collectively determine the scope and limits of citizen governance – we need to be able to peruse the full set of government functions – at federal, state and local levels.

What we need is a visualisation – a view that shows us government functions as a whole and enables us to explore the component parts. Then, we could add an architecture of participation – put it to users as to what issues should be put to the people.

Actually, such a tool could be multi-purpose. Imagine if, having found a function of interest, you could see which level of government performs that function, and which agency, and how to get in touch with that agency. For me, a browsable visualisation of Australian governments has greater potential value as a directory than any ‘enhanced’ australia.gov.au search service.

How the architecture of this model of citizen governance might work is of course open, but the way forward for the visualisation part of this project seems obvious. A starting point, at least in relation to the federal government, would certainly be information from the National Archives, which has a key role in keeping governments accountable – by keeping their records – and which therefore takes a lead role in keeping government information organised. For example, it:

So, how about it? Do you share my sense that making the functions visible is a critical first step toward Government 2.0?

Innovative ideas

A few comments on Friday’s Innovative Ideas Forum at the National Library of Australia…

A bit of faith in humanity goes a long way

From my POV, the most interesting aspect of the forum was that one key theme was so not-new – trust in and respect for the public / consumers / audiences / users – whatever we want to call them. Four of the presenters suggested in some way that trust as an essential element of contemporary cultural work – Marcus Gillezeau, Mark Scott, Rose Holley and Darren Sharp. This is an absolutely critical point. But it has been said many a time before, especially in relation to the library sector. It was the issue that was most discussed in 2006 when I posted a paper about Web 2.0. And it’s all over the web now – just try googling ‘radical trust’.

As government-funded cultural workers – as people in positions of cultural authority – we need to lay aside our fears, withhold our judgement, and actively resist our will-to-control – and trust and respect our audiences, radically and fundamentally. If we assume the best of people, and build systems based on radical trust (which can include transparency features and safeguards such as version tracking and rollback functions), then it’s possible to get the brilliant results that the Library is getting through its Newspapers Digitisation Program – thousands of people correcting millions of words, because they want to help. As Rose Holley reported, people are motivated by the trust and respect the Library is showing them.

The opposite is also true, and I bet we all have this experience: lack of trust is a powerful demotivator.

But clearly, hearing the words and seeing the success stories is not sufficient to engender the cultural shift we need in order to build trust-based systems. Every single time I hear (or talk) about a project involving user-generated content, someone invariably asks the question about the vandals.

Well, yes it happens that some people do dodgy things, by accident and by design. But it’s better to build a system that enables public participation for public benefit than to preclude that participation and benefit on the assumption of ill-will. Only then can we allow and benefit from user-led innovation  – thanks to Darren Sharp for bringing this notion to the forum (and hear, hear to the recently-released Venturous Australia report, which pointed out that governments have been pretty good at fostering top-down innovation but fare badly when it comes to innovating from the bottom up).

Talking the talk but baulking at the walk

Despite lugging my huuuuge Mac laptop with the idea of swimming along in the tweetstream while I listened… I was one of the who-knows-how-many who couldn’t connect, even after more IP addresses were made available. Well – I did manage it at 4.45pm from the foyer, after everyone had gone home 😦

So as someone willing but unable to participate in that way, I was disappointed that the social media channels that had been set up for the event were not integrated in any way into the forum itself – rather, there was an unfortunate (and ironic, given the subject) disconnect between the presenters and the audience.

Perhaps the next forum could be a more radical experiment in the form of the forum – perhaps we could collaborate to create some innovative ideas.

A phenomenon that passed me by…

I admit I had never once heard a jot about Scorched, the ambitious and fascinating all-media creation of Marcus Gillezeau and co. I’m not a watcher of commercial tv, so no surprise there. But I’m a user of social media, and did not hear about it that way either. Would have been interesting to see a show of hands as to how many people at the forum had heard of the project, watched the telemovie, participated in the community. Lots about it is interesting and worthy of further discussion – in particular, the relationships between fact / fiction, and commercial / non-commercial culture. And what happens to the community now that there’s no more funding?