Digital Kulcha: selective memory?

Magritte The Treachery of Images provides a cl...

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Information is that part of an individual’s knowledge which s/he choses to share with certain other persons at certain times for certain reasons.  Information must be represented in language of some kind – and by ‘language’, I mean any form of symbol or code or gesture that enjoys a culturally derived meaning: there does not appear to be universally understood meaning that can be attached to any sound, gesture, image, colour or shape, as far as I am aware.  Information is best considered as a rather loose form of the concept of ‘ideas’.  A document, it has already been noted, can be considered as a container of information: that is, when information is recorded in order to overcome spatio-temporal constraints, it is recorded in a document.  The document, as a physicality, has its own particular characteristics.

‘Ideas’ are also perhaps culturally derived, or have cultural origins.  While, as individuals, we certainly enjoy individual personalities, capabilities and competencies, we also, fairly early on, start forming a knowledge framework, or scaffolding, onto which we can position other thoughts and ideas and insights and experiences, as they are encountered.  But while our individualism makes us selective, our individualism is, in turn, shaped by our context – our cultural context, specifically.  As Winston Churchill is believed to have said, ‘First we shape our tools (or houses) and then they shape us’ – we have a similar structurated relationship with knowledge, culture and ideas.  Eventually, what we know – our knowledge – is a product of our being and of our experiences – physical and cultural – of the world.

What is ‘culture’?  I will not attempt any definition of that word here, except perhaps to say that it does not necessarily mean the grand artefacts of high culture, nor the most popular of contemporary creative expression.  As T.S Eliot said, ‘Culture is the smell of cabbage soup’; slight sensations (like the smell of a madeleine dipped in tea) can give rise to great visions and deep understandings.

What does this have to do with digital libraries, archives and museums?  We do know that these are highly specialised and expensive projects.  We also know that the technology is still at a primitive stage, comparatively speaking, compared to where it might go: digital preservation is an area that, in particular, needs some significant development.  Because of these reasons, at least, digitisation efforts have, for the most part, been focused on digitisation of documents (used here to include any information-containing artefact) that  are perceived to have some cultural value.  In other words, these documents are considered to contain information which is considered to be important to transmit, to preserve, to communicate.

In making such decisions, however, are we not making choices which may change or even skew the understanding that future generations may have of the very ‘culture’ we are attempting to preserve and make available?  Do we run the risk of relaying or supporting only one particular view of what is important (however broadly that may be conceived)?  Archives tend to deal with those documents which provide evidence of business transactions – and which are considered worthy of conservation and preservation for possible later use (whatever that might be).  Museums will collect objects, sometimes defined by subject area (‘art’, ‘natural history’) determined to a certain extent by what is discovered or found, as well as what is unusual or scarce.  Libraries are known to be particularly selective in the documents that they collect and manage, depending on subject area and user community profile.

But what about all the other textures and flavours of everyday life?  What should we be doing about social media?  Should we continue to rely on Google to locate all the born-digital documents that are available less formally than those that are formally published and distributed?  Should we, could we, ignore more transient or ephemeral documents?  Where does ‘quality control’ begin and end?  Who will the digital ‘user’ be in years and generations to come?  Will focusing only on the past or present in a selective way make sense in the future?  How should we as information professionals be associated with open access materials?

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What’s the point?

Center for Information and Communication Techn...

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There is no question that there is a surging urge to digitise. But what inspires this? What is the point of all this activity? There are a number of conversation strands to this topic, and I look at some of them here.  It is likely there are more, and others.  What does emerge is that there are professional, philosophical, economic and possibly even cultural differences in approach to digitisation, and these are by no means consistent or consensual. In fact, some of the drivers for digitisation seem to be using the same means to achieve quite different ends.

1. The first and perhaps most obvious inspiration for the digitisation of the world’s documents and cultural artefacts finds its origin in the zeitgeist of the so-called information society: a zeitgeist, may it be said, which by now is surely rather old and tawdry, and exposed for the misconceived delusion that it is. We now know that all societies have always been ‘information societies’; that we by and large agree with Daniel Bell and Manuel Castells that the concept of the ‘information society’ is in fact but another stage of the capitalist industrial society, which encourages consumerism. We are aware that the notion of ‘globalisation’, in the way it is enacted by multinationals to exploit the poor and disadvantaged in favour of the rich, has some serious ethical questions to answer. We can also, quite quickly, dismiss the idea that technologies, in and of themselves, can create change or increase social development: it is the USE of them, and the PURPOSES for which they are used that will make the desired differences in the lives of individuals, communities and societies. This purpose, from the point of view of information professionals, is to assist in the communication of information (or ideas) between people. Alas: at the same time, there seems to be a parallel desire to keep populations ignorant or misinformed, at least by certain regimes: information flows are suppressed.

2. A second driver for digitisation is certainly economic. This has two aspects: firstly, digitisation and increasing use of information and communication techologies (ICTs) seems to be understood to be the way to create new jobs, new possibilities to make money and perhaps even fortunes. This aspiration was dashed at least once, with the dot.com bust in the 1990s: the only people who seem to be making money now are those who are selling the equipment – which needs to be constantly updated and replaced – and the software – although possibilities here seem to be limited with the increased availability of free software and, more importantly, Open Source coding systems. Some online endeavours are financially valued in strange ways, too, which are perhaps difficult to understand. The billions of dollars that Facebook is allegedly worth is, to my mind, a strange phenomenon. But there are still seemingly unlimited opportunities for online merchandising, marketing and retailing, and consultants in social networking marketing seem to be thriving.

The other side of the economic or financial aspect is the possibility for saving money and cost-cutting. This applies not only to the vending of virtual objects such as ebooks or online services (website hosting, for example), which cost little to store and maintain. The replacement of libraries by the internet seems to be a very real possibility for many governments dealing with the fallout from the Global Financial Crisis (GFC – which always, for some reason, reminds me of Dahl’s Big Friendly Giant – BFG). David Cameron‘s present regime in the UK is a good example of this: it extends to replacing large numbers of public servants whose work can, apparently, also be done by citizens using the internet. ICTs continue to be deified as saviours of the world, if one is to believe the rhetoric that is expressed in many government documents, particularly perhaps some of those emanating for the iEurope European Union’s digital economy initiatives.

3.  Digitisation of documents does, however, open doors that were previously firmly shut. The Open Educational Resources University  (http://wikieducator.org/OER_university#Core_initiatives_of_the_logic_model) campaign being led, to all intents and purposes, by Wayne Mackintosh, is a prime example of this. It uses the best characteristics of the ‘information society’ , such as globalisation, to reach scholars and teachers all over the world, in order to create and distribute university learning materials to those who live all over the world – not just in the rich parts – so that they will have access to tertiary education. Surely this is the only way forward, in this dimension? I have mentioned Open Source software; there is also an increased movement towards access to ideas that is possible in a digitised, virtual, networked, information environment: Open Access. This is particularly useful for the dissemination of scholarly information, as well as those documents that are required to support other roles in society, not forgetting entertainment. All of these possibilities, combined with the increasing mobility of ICT devices (smaller and cheaper) and wireless access, may perhaps lead to significant improvements in people’s lives. Some even say that ICTs facilitated the recent political changes we have seen in North Africa.

4. We cannot rule out the possibility that digitisation is also being stimulated by technological determinism. “Oooh! I want to build a twaddler! It’s new! It’s big! It’s shiny!” But what can it be used for? Does it help me? Will it last for ever? Do we need one?  Rather cynically, there does appear to be some of this in a few digitisation initiatives, which have lasted for only as long as the funding has been around – and there doesn’t appear to have been enough reason or purpose to continue the funding. While, for many reasons, I endorse and support – and am enthusiastic about – the purposes to which the digitisation of cultural resources and documents can be put, I am still more than a bit concerned about the long-term prognosis. ‘Digital preservation’ still appears, to me, to be an oxymoron. As well as this, as I have been saying for about two decades, the technology is still very primitive: I don’t think that our clever colleagues in computer science and technologies have come anywhere near to where their work might still take them. Regarding existing technologies as the ‘last word’, or even suggesting that things may stay more or less the same (simply because our imaginations fail us), could mean making a very big mistake indeed.

5. The last aspect of the enthusiasm for digitisation may be motivated by a desire for control (above and beyond any economic or financial considerations). Access to information (or ideas, which I find to be the most useful synonym) has always, and will always be, regarded politically, as ideas may be – and indeed often are – dangerous: at least to the status quo, and especially to those who would be upset or lose out if the status quo were to be disturbed. Paradoxically, digitisation simultaneously provides the possibility for loss of centralised control: the use of Twitter and Facebook in Egypt, for example, or perhaps as a slightly more exaggerated example, WikiLeaks and now UniLeaks (http://www.unileaks.org), which could be seen as serving as the conscience of contemporary society. Citizen journalism – and indeed all social media – are other expressions of this facility. Information, or ideas, no longer have to be sanctioned by those in power or positions of authority: anybody (even me) can say what they like and have the possibility of being heard all over the world. UKUncut ( http://ukuncut.org.uk/blog/26th-march—invite-your-friends) provides  but one example of this.  This may possibly be an unexpected outcome of (4) above: “We invented the twaddler but we didn’t realise it could be used like THIS!”.

Looking forward to hearing from you – and please post comment here and on the Wallwisher!

All the best as ever, wherever you are

S

digital libraries (856)

Zimbabwe News available on Aluka digital library

Using netvibes, you can keep up to date on any number of topics that interest you. This is my recent message about digital libraries.