Defined by data, but is it accurate?
In Lev Manovich’s The Language of New Media( MIT Press, 2001), the author posits a couple of observations about new media. Beyond his “aim to describe and understand the logic driving the development of the language of new media” (p.7), he raises several key/troubling issues. Among them are:
- What are some of the implications of “databases as a cultural form” (p219)?
- How do we protect history from the “new media [ability] to create versions of the same object…” (p. 39)?
In the foreword, Mark Tribe describes the “net art” community as one which “possessed an anarchic quality of entrepreneurial meritocracy strikingly different from the rest of the art world…” (p. xii). I think this description fairly describes the impact of the database culture on the post-industrial cultures of the West. In his statement, there is a comparison between an unstructured meritocracy (an oxymoron) and the implicit “rest of the world” which is neither exactly anarchic nor meritocratic. I think that one could describe the “rest of the world” in such loose terms effectively enough, but I believe this leaves an opportunity for the “rest of the world” to strive for structure and the database culture to require at least structure in its framework if not value definitions. In other words, as Manovich points out, there are two ways to order data, flat and hierarchical. That is the key to the anarchy that describes the database culture.
The structure is found in the meritocracy… or on this case, the rational order of the database. The more rational, the higher order; the more flexible, the more useful. The anarchy stems from two opposing methods of implementing that order, flat and equally distributed (in its own way a form of meritocracy) or hierarchical.
Eschewing the esoteric, what are other implications of the database culture?
In the flat organization of data, one relies on hyperlinking extensively. Manovich argues that this is the demise of rhetoric (p. 77). It removes building the case for an argument from a linear progression and presents data in a random access scenario begging the question: Does this change the definition of an intelligent, capable, gifted being? From Plato to the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, the mark of an educated and truly intelligent person was his or her ability to accumulate knowledge and translate it into well-reasoned thought and logic. (Admittedly, this is a boorish over-simplification.) What, then, is the definition of an intelligent, capable, gifted being now?
In the Information Age, there is more relevant material available than can be consumed, let alone mastered. The cultural impact of this is that gifts of reason and rhetoric have indeed been replaced with capability in tools. It is no longer particularly valuable to know the last Aztec ruler, the strategic import of the Second Peloponnesian War, or the role of the church in the development of the printing press. It is valuable to know the events occurred and there may be some import associated with them, but particularly, it is critical to know where to find the data. Analysis of data occurs at near-real time from a vast library increasingly available at the fingertips. As a result, successful people in the current age are not ones with vast knowledge of things, but vast access and experience in finding out.
A second point that Manovich exposed is along the lines of authenticity. In a digital realm, how can we trust the data?
Below is a photograph of DeadGuyQuotes flying an airplane in 2008. On the left you see the author in the right-hand seat of the aircraft in what is typically the co-pilot’s seat, implying he is not the “pilot-in-command” (PIC) (a relevant term in the view of the Federal Aviation Administration). On the right, you see the pilot in the left-hand seat in the pilot’s seat implying he is the PIC.
Which is it? Does it matter?
It does. I was actually flying from the co-pilot’s seat while a licensed pilot was PIC flying from the other seat. My medical certificate has expired and I am not legally able to assume control of an aircraft. But, with a very simple move from Photoshop, I became the pilot. The historian would need the dates and my log book to attempt to validate the veracity of this photo.
Since my logbook does not reflect the day’s travel the historian is left wondering if I simply failed to enter the trip, or I was choosing to fly illegally, or there is a forgery somewhere. In my logbook the historian would have noted an expired medical certificate, but that does not prove that a valid one does not exist somewhere else.
How do we protect the immeasurable amounts of data being collected? How do we determine integrity and authenticity?
In the near future, the historian and archivist will routinely sort through petabytes of email trying to establish a chain of events and discussions where today we are quite happy to swim in lakes of scanned memoranda. Conducting digital forensics on every source is impractical and cost-prohibitive.
I don’t have any particular solutions, either technically or philosophically, but I am greatly concerned about this challenge. As a historian interested in executive American history, and a member of the executive branch of the government, I see a disaster in the making. We are not protecting our archives to make them available to future historians and tools such as the National Archives’ Electronic Records Archives are current projects doomed to failure as trying to do too much for too many with no standards.
Professor Cohen was right, the problem with blogs is not writing enough, but writing too much. There is much more to discuss on the notion of database culture and much more to develop on the preservation of history in the digital domain.
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