Friday, October 14, 2011

Sustainability and Post-Digital Culture

Last night Nick Poole, CEO of the Collections Trust and Chair at Europeana Council of Content Providers and Aggregators, spoke about 'Sustainability and Post-Digital Culture' at the Centre for Sustainable Heritage, UCL. The talk was aimed at museums, though the issues under discussion could easily be applied to the entire cultural heritage sector. What follows is a brief report of his talk. Nick's slides are available here.

I'll begin by taking a brief stab at explaining the title. 'Post-digital' references the established ubiquity of technology within society and the fact that technological solutions are ever-present. While our own attitudes may still be playing catch-up, the technologies over which we worry and place much hope in equal measure have been long-established.

So what's next? Reportedly, Jacques Attali, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, stated that museums could not provide a basis for sound investment, apparently lacking any understanding of their own value or how to leverage their content. In part, this is an understandable assumption - while museums certainly know the value of their content, it is the ability to communicate that value to outside stakeholders that is often lacking. It's an obvious parallel with libraries, though it's interesting to be reminded that museums have not even seen anything like the widespread public support that the libraries have managed to conjure up in the face of the UK Government's cuts.

In museums, the practice of collecting content has remained the same, more or less, from the beginning, but a profound change has occurred in the way museums engage with the public. At this point in time, a 'critical mass success' model applied to digital content creation is not going to work. In simply massing digital items online, this unprocessed content is akin to answering the user's call for bread by showing them a field of wheat. Above all, such an approach is unsustainable, when we define sustainability as directly linked to resilience, which in turn is linked to relevance. The obvious point is to get past the digitality of content and emphasise it's use instead (hence 'post-digital'), a strong commonality with issues reported in web archiving, described in my last post.

In closing, some key point were presented:
  • User facility and agency: a link was made to the exponential rise in gaming culture, which appeals to people's propensity to analyse large amounts of information and integrate that into the world. Facility is the competence to do so, also proving oneself to be adept technologically; agency is basically the expectation that one will be able to do these things. Facility and agency are essentially removed in the manner that cultural heritage content is usually presented - in disempowering users by removing this agency, the natural conclusion for many is to observe irrelevance in such institutions. We therefore need to articulate the value of curatorship to people who lead very different lives, and there is a balance to be found here between that and the more traditional mediated experience.
  • The role of (digital) preservation: Preservation is a by-product of use: the cost of those operations and the value of content within the 'long tail' of digital content cannot be squared. Rather, survivability is linked directly to accessibility (certainly when applied to material that exists for access, the term 'preservation' can seem like a bit of a non sequitor). For physical material, there is too much content and not enough people to look after it - the notion of maintaining these physical collections has become an artifice. That model is no longer sustainable and we can't afford a 'collect and preserve' attitude any longer.
  • Links to commercial content industries: When I asked whether the cultural heritage sector should build more bridges with the commercial content industries to move forward, the answer was an emphatic 'yes'. The idea that commercial and open ventures are irreconcilable is simply not true. Intelligent informed collaborations can happen that create content that is both commercially and freely available in its different aspects.  

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