This last part of my talk from DOCAM tackles some of the issues of scalability and redundancy raised by Caitlin, Oliver, Roger, and others--jon.
START OF PART 3
Sharing within applications
Besides access, what really turbocharges crowdsourcing is connection. The traditional way to think of connecting data from different sources is to put it all a giant union database, or if that's impractical, to enforce a common standard that everyone has to obey. These solutions have their uses--as mentioned, the Variable Media Questionnaire became more sociable as a Web service than as a standalone application. But they are also limiting when working with a community of heterogeneous practitioners and data. So we'll look at some options for stimulating sharing while respecting differences.
It's possible to build the interface to a single dataset in a way that respects differences. Users of the latest Variable Media Questionnaire can compare opinions as they vary by work, by interviewee, and by date. One of the most illuminating features of such comparisons is the ability to highlight disagreements--a situation you aren't likely to see on the wall label for an artwork, but one I think is especially interesting from a historical perspective. When the Questionnaire reveals that the Eva Hesse estate and her close friend Sol LeWitt disagreed about whether her deteriorating sculptures should be emulated or left to die, that provokes a really interesting discussion about the aesthetics of postminimal art.
Few database designers would deliberately build a bottleneck into their own system. Yet whether under pressure from copyright holders or simply by force of habit, almost all of them design their databases as segregated silos--which can amount to an entire array of bottlenecks.
Most museums and archives in the United States and Europe have developed in-house databases and/or Web sites, and a smaller but significant proportion have databases that can be searched via their Web sites. So a curator who wants to search for "television" can consult the comprehensive databases of the Langlois Foundation, MedienKunstNetz, or the Database of Virtual Art.
What a researcher currently cannot do, however, is to search for the theme "television" across all, or even a handful, of such databases. For efficiency, such online databases are typically accessed via server-side scripts that take the form "index.php?theme=television," a formula that Google and Yahoo cannot spider. As a result, millions of dollars and countless hours of staff time and expertise are spent squirreling data away in private silos inaccessible to a broader public.
We've run into a similar incommensurability in Forging the Future, an alliance of museums and cultural organizations currently working on the release of a new preservation tools. We wanted each tool to be useful on its own, but be even better when combined with other Forging the Future tools, or even with proprietary databases. But we soon found it difficult to convince our differing kinds of data and platforms to play nice; it's hard to get a Web-based union database and a desktop-based Filemaker client to speak the same language. The last thing we wanted to do was to jam everything into yet another silo'd database, so instead we went in search of a software equivalent of Star Trek's "universal translator"--maybe not strong enough to translate Klingon into English, but at least able to make the introductions between related people and artworks in different databases.
Sharing among applications
Still Water's John Bell came up with the idea of a Metaserver that could act like a sort of ISBN for art by generated unique, portable ids for people, works, and vocabulary. Any database with access to the Internet--even a desktop application like Filemaker--can hook into the Metaserver through an open API, at which point a registrar adding records to that database could simultaneously view or add to related data from every other database on the system. This Metaserver tunnels between silos.
As co-developer Craig Dietrich likes to say, the Metaserver isn't an archive, but rather an "inverse archive," that stores pointers to records in other folk's archives. Of course, the Semantic Web has promised this for some time, but there are plenty of doubts about when, and whether, it will ever arrive. (It's like the joke about fusion: it's the technology of the future, and always will be.) But registries like the Metaserver are lightweight and easy to build with practical techniques we have right now.
I mentioned before the problems of getting IT departments and database vendors to add new modules for preservation--a problem echoed by new media conservators such as Anne-Marie Zeppetelli and Joanna Phillips. Forging the Future sidesteps this problem by injecting content into an existing database rather than adding new fields to it.
So far the Metaserver team has prototyped the API and is working on testbed implementations with two distinct databases, the 3rd-generation Variable Media Questionnaire and The Pool, an online environment that tracks collaboration. For example, look up Nam June Paik's TV Garden in the the Variable Media Questionnaire and under "resources" you'll see that there is an associated record in The Pool. Click on that link and you'll find out what information The Pool has on TV Garden: namely that it's been rated highly by Pool users, and that it has inspired several subsequent works of new media.
Meanwhile, Forging partners Nick Hasty of Rhizome and Michael Katchen of Franklin Furnace have demonstrated how the Metaserver could help crowdsource a vocabulary shared among artists and curators in different institutions. In this model, VocabWiki, a cross-institional collective vocabulary for variable media works, is an editable set of terms and definitions fed from tags contributed by Rhizome's Artbase community ("generative art", "posthuman"). Thanks to the Metaserver, occurrences of those tags on the Rhizome Web site will be automatically hotlinked to VocabWiki for the latest definitions. So if you happen upon a work tagged "Virtual Reality" on the Artbase, you'll see a link to a definition of that term on VocabWiki.
Distribute and connect
In the past decade, a number of exciting new contenders have joined the race to rescue digital culture, so that the field now includes veterans like INCCA and Matters in Media Art as well as newcomers like DOCAM and the third-generation Variable Media Questionnaire. Rather than waiting for time to knock all but one victor out of the running, I believe we should respect the differences between these various tools and communities. Protocols like the Metaserver should help connect the silos without destroying what makes each unique.
Forging the Future
Variable Media Questionnaire (general)
Variable Media Questionnaire (free demo!)
Rhizome ArtBase vocabulary
END OF PART 3