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Month: January 2009

Lifecasting

Lifecasting

Based on the previous post, I am seriously considering a day of lifecasting with Jason and Alex. Not sure about the logistics at all let alone a date (Jason prefers summer), but I think it would be an interesting challenge. In sum: we record as much as possible of our lives throughout a single day, in as many media as possible.

Current thoughts: photographs documenting where we are, what we look like; video documenting us interacting with our environments, pets, spouses, children, and possbly some video updates of us describing what we’re doing and what we’re thinking about; uploaded documents that we’re working on, email we’re sending (where feasible); playlists of what we’re listening to, lists of any movies/tv we watch; IM conversations; snippets of audio of things like our alarms going off, breakfast being cooked, etc.; descriptions and photos of any food we eat or drinks we drink; descriptions and data of basic things like maps of the area and weather reports. If we really want to get serious, we could add in things like body temperature and whatnot too. Full documentation.

At the the moment I think we should set up some separate place for all this information too be stored. The first thing that comes to mind is that we set up a blog with a lot of bells and whistles, and everyone who’s participating gets their own category. So you could see it all at once, or by person. I’d want to use twitter, but I’d want tweets to show up on the blog as well, in between the blog posts, ideally in a different colour. Marked off, so to speak. Also, I wouldn’t want to use my normal twitte account for all this. I bet that would just annoy the hell out of people. No sure if a blog will work as the basic platform, though. We still need to think that through. Jason may have a point about waiting a bit.

The general point of this exercise, as I currently understand it, is to demonstrate how much “information” we can create on a regular basis, turn it into digital, archivable material, and to force the question about how useful it really is. I’d also like to see for myself just what is and is not comfortable to reveal. Some obvious elements immediately spring to mind; can I ethically copy my email to the project? (As long as someone else’e email doesn’t show up as well? Can I ethically, or legally, make someone else’s email, addressed to me, publicly available? I suspect that would fall outside the scope of the project.) Will I modulate my behaviour because of how I want to be seen? Will I alter my behaviour because I know everything is being recorded? Is the concept of perpetual web archiving an influencing factor in what I’m prepared to share online? Does it stifle my communication? Does it inherently alter the nature of the information online? Traditional media certainly is shaped by its storage medium; I can’t imagine this would be any different. More than anything I’d worry that I’m being boring; will I spend all my time trying to be as witty and entertaining as possible? How does archiving actually become the material? I’m sure there are many more questions, these are just top of mind for me.

I think before we really get started I’ll have a look at lifecasting as it currently exists and see what I can learn from it. I don’t really want to do a life stream of video for archive, because the sheer size of the file such a video would have to be when it’s running the whole day makes me queasy. We could do ephemeral live streaming (I have no problem with that), but that sort of defeats the purpose. More investigation on this matter is required.

Anyone else interested in participating in this warped little experiment? It’s just one day. I think the reflection on the experience will be worthwhile. We might even have to write it up. We have lots of time to prepare. I think we have a lot of sorting out to do before we can really go forward. We can get together and develop some basic policy around how we’ll manage it. Jason’s probably right about the summer. It will probably take that long to sort out the details.

You in? Come on, it will be fun.

The Plight of Future Historians

The Plight of Future Historians

Today, the Guardian warns:

“Too many of us suffer from a condition that is going to leave our grandchildren bereft,” Brindley states. “I call it personal digital disorder. Think of those thousands of digital photographs that lie hidden on our computers. Few store them, so those who come after us will not be able to look at them. It’s tragic.”

She believes similar gaps could appear in the national memory, pointing out that, contrary to popular assumption, internet companies such as Google are not collecting and archiving material of this type. It is left instead to the libraries and archives which have been gathering books, periodicals, newspapers and recordings for centuries. With an interim report from communications minister Lord Carter on the future of digital Britain imminent, Brindley makes the case for the British Library as the repository that will ensure emails and websites are preserved as reliably as manuscripts and books.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for this imaginary plight of future historians, in spite of being a librarian. And it’s not because I don’t see the value in content that’s on the web. There are two sides of the question that I take issue with.

First: “everything should be archived”. This is simply impossible, and is actually misunderstanding what the internet is. If you understand it as a vast publication domain, where things are published every day that just don’t happen to be books, then this desire to archive it all makes sense. But is the stuff of the internet really published? Well, what does “published” really mean?

To be honest, I think the term has no meaning anymore. At one point, “published” meant that a whole team of people thought what you wrote was worth producing, selling, and storing. It comes with a sense of authority, a kind of title. It’s a way we divide the masses into those we want to listen to and those we don’t, in many different arenas. It connotes a sense of value (to someone, at least). Many people object to the idea that there’s value of any kind of the wild open internet, because just anyone can “publish”. I learned in my reference class at library school that one should always check the author of a book to see who they are and what institution they’re associated with before taking them seriously; if you fall outside our institutions, why, surely you have nothing of value to say, and you’re probably lying! Wikipedia: case in point. We have our ways to determine whether we ought to consider what you’re saying not based on the content, but on who and what you are. Apparently this protects us from ever having to have critical reading skills. We are afraid of being duped, so we cling to our social structures.

So many people just turn that “publish” definition on its head and say everything on the internet is “published”, everyone has a pulpit, everyone can be heard in the same way. I object to this as well. Turning an ineffective idea upside down doesn’t get us any closer to a useful definition of a term, or a practice.

Currently, this is how I define “publication”: blocks of text that are published by a company have been vetted and determined to be sellable to whatever audience the company serves. This holds for fiction, for academic work, etc.

Is content on the web “published”? What does that even mean? I think we start shifting to turn that meaning into “available”. If I write something and post it online, it’s available to anyone who wants to see it, but it’s not “published” in any traditional sense. If I take it down, does it become unpublished? Can I only unpublish if I get to it before it gets cached by anyone’s browsers, before Google gets to it? What if I post something online, but no search engine ever finds it and no one ever visits the page? Was it published then? If I put something online but lock it up and let no one see it, is it published?

I think we need a more sophisticated conception of publication to fully incorporate the way we use and interact with the web. I don’t think the traditional notion is helpful, and I think it presumes a kind of static life for web content that just isn’t there. Web content is read/write. It’s editable, it’s alterable. Rather than dislike that about the content, we should encourage and celebrate that. That’s what’s great about it.

There has always been ephemera. Most of it has been lost. Is that sad? I suppose so. As a (former) historian-in-training, I would have loved to get my hands on the ephemera of early modern women’s lives. I would love to know more about them, more about what drove them, what they’re lives were like. But I don’t feel like I’m owed that information. Ephemera is what fills our lives; when that ephemera becomes digital, we need to come to terms with our own privacy. Just because you can record and store things doesn’t mean you should.

And this comes to the heart of the matter, the second element of the desire to archive everything that irks me. The common statement is that we are producing more information now than ever before, and this information needs archiving. The reality is this: we are not producing “more information” per capita. We simply are not, I refuse to believe that. Medieval people swam in seas of information much as we do, it’s just that the vast majority of it was oral, or otherwise unstorable (for them). These are people who believed that reading itself was a group event, they couldn’t read without speaking aloud. (Don’t be so shy if you move your lips while reading; it’s a noble tradition!) Reading and listening were a pair. In our history we just stored more of that information in our brains and less of it in portable media. If you think surviving in a medieval village required no information, consider how many things you’d need to know how to do, how many separate “trades” a medieval woman would need to be an expert in just to feed, clothe, and sustain her family. Did she have “less” information? She certainly knew her neighbours better. She knew the details of other people’s lives, from start to finish. She knew her bible without ever having looked at one. Her wikipedia was inside her own head.

Today we have stopped using our brains for storage and using them for processing power instead. Not better or worse, just different. We use media to store our knowledge and information rather than remembering it. So of course there appears to be more information. Because we keep dumping it outside ourselves, and everyone’s doing it.

Not to say that a complete archive of everyone’s ephemera, every thought, detail, bit of reference material ever produced by a person throughout their life wouldn’t make interesting history. I think it would, but that’s not what we think libraries are really for. We do generally respect a certain level of privacy. It would be a neat project for someone out there to decide to archive absolutely everything about themselves for a year of their lives and submit that to an archive. Temperature, diet, thoughts, recordings of conversations, television programs watched, books read, everything. We you want to harvest everything on the web, then you might as well use all those security cameras out there to literally record everything that goes on, for ever, and store that in the library for future historians. Set up microphones on the street corners, in homes, in classrooms, submit recordings to the library. A complete record of food bought and consumed. Everything. That’s not what we consider “published”, no matter how public any of it is. We draw the line. Somehow if it’s in writing it’s fair game.

But that’s not what people are generally talking about when they talk about “archiving information”. I know this is true because the article ends with this:

“On the other hand, we’re producing much more information these days than we used to, and not all of it is necessary. Do we want to keep the Twitter account of Stephen Fry or some of the marginalia around the edges of the Sydney Olympics? I don’t think we necessarily do.”

There’s “good” information and then this other, random ephemera. I will bet you that Stephen Fry’s twitter feed will be of more interest to these future historians than a record of the official Sydney Olympics webpage. And that’s the other side of this argument.

This isn’t about preserving information for those sacred future historians. This is about making sure the future sees us the way we want to be seen; not mired in debates about Survivor, or writing stacks and stacks of Harry Potter slash fanfiction, or coming up with captions for LOLcats. Not twitter, because that is too silly, but serious websites, like the whitehouse’s. We’re trying to shape the way the future sees us, and we want to be seen in a particular light.

I object to that process.

Use of Video

Use of Video

I was launched awake at 4:30am this morning thinking about something I probably won’t be able to approach in the next six months, or even possibly not within the next year. Or ever. And yet.

I’m on a small team at work set on getting a brand new website. No facelift; something totally new. We’ve opened up the floodgates and are interested in anything we could do with a good web presence. Mostly I’m dreaming up more interactive things, which is a bit of a pipe dream. Library websites are usually not interactive on the level that I’m thinking about, but I’m still dreaming about it.

So this morning, out of nowhere, a very simple idea pings me and throws me out of bed. Virtual building. Videos. Navigating services and resources.

I’ve been talking about building a replica of our library in Second Life for some time. I want to do it less to get people interested in virtual worlds or in Second Life in particular, but more as a more interesting way to think and talk about the building and its purpose. I don’t want to lure people into Second Life (one of my pet peeves: people judging projects in Second Life by how many people who experience it stick around in-world). I’d rather they glean what they need from the experience and move forward in whatever way makes the most sense to them.

I want to have it more like an exhibit, a thing you look at and interact with in public places.

But then I was thinking: it would be dead easy, once you have such a replica build, to create short videos about how to get places. For instance: on our new website, we will probably have a section on reference services. Well, why not have a short video that shows you how to find the reference staff? It’s not exactly crystal clear in the building itself. Or how to find the technology centre, or the smart classroom, or the fiance learning centre. Or places for quiet study. Or places for group work. Bathrooms. Gosh, anything! Not a map: we already have those. But actually watching a person do it. Going down the stairs, turning right after the elevators, chosing the door on the left rather than on the right. Going up the stairs, turning left at the water fountain. The details that non-map people use to navigate their world.

Well, that’s not the idea that woke me up. The idea that woke me up was about videos that create themselves. I don’t know much about video, but I presume that’s not impossible; a video that is generated from pieces of existing video and strung together based on the circumstances of a particular set of variables. Does this take forever for a system to accomplish? What woke me up was this: wouldn’t it be awesome if you did a search for a book or journal, and the system showed you a video of an avatar walking up to the stacks and moving toward exactly where that book should be? If we had RFID on all the books this would be even more precise, but we should be able to roughly guess where a book (that isn’t checked out) ought to be. To the shelf, at least. And I got thinking about it because I was thinking about mobile devices, and having such a video play on a mobile device to help you navigate the stacks. A little bandwidth-heavy, but it was just a half-awake sort of thought.