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November 29, 2011

[2b2k] Curation without trucks

If users of a physical library could see the thousands of ghost trucks containing all the works that the library didn’t buy backing away from the library’s loading dock, the idea of a library would seem much less plausible. Rather than seeming like a treasure trove, it would look like a relatively arbitrary reduction.

It’s not that users or librarians think there is some perfect set (although it wasn’t so long ago that picking a shelf’s worth of The Great Books seemed not only possible but laudable). Everyone is pragmatic about this. Users understand that libraries make decisions based on a mix of supporting popular tastes and educating to preferred tastes: The Iliad is going to survive being culled even though it has far fewer annual check-outs than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Curating is a practical art and libraries are good at it. But curating into a single collection that happens to fit within a library-sized building increasingly looks like a response to the weaknesses of material goods, rather than as an appropriate appreciation of their cultural value. Curation has always meant identifying the exceptions, but with the new assumption of abundance, curators look for exceptions to be excluded, rather than to be included. In the Age of the Net, we’re coming to believe that just about everything deserves to be in the library for one reason or another.

It seems to me there are two challenges here. The first is redeploying the skills of curators within a hyper-abundant world that supports multiple curations without cullings. That seems to me eminently possible and valuable. The second is cultivating tastes when there are so many more paths of least cognitive and aesthetic resistance. And that is a far more difficult, even implausible, challenge.

That is, our technology makes it easy to have multiple curations equally available, but our culture wants (has wanted?) some particular curations to have priority. Unless trucks are physically removing the works outside the preferred collection, how we are going to enforce our cultural preferences?

The easy solution is to give up on the attempt. The Old White Man’s canon is dead, and good riddance. But you don’t have to love old white men to believe that culture requires education — despite what Nikolas Sarkozy believes, we don’t “naturally” love complex works of art without knowing anything about their history or context — and that education requires taking some harder paths, rather than always preferring the easier, more familiar roads. I won’t argue further for this because it’s a long discussion and I have nothing to say that you haven’t already thought. So, for the moment take it as an hypothesis.

This I think makes clear what one of the roles of the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America) should be.

Ed Summers has warned that the DPLA needs to be different from the Web. If it is simply an index of what is already available, then it has not done its job. It seems to me that even if it curates a collection of available materials it has not done its job. It is not enough to curate. It is not even enough to curate in a webby way that enables users to participate in the process. Rather, it needs to be (imo) a loosely curated assemblage that is rich in helping us not only to find what is of value, but to appreciate the value of what we find. It can do that in the traditional ways — including items in the collection, including them in special lists, providing elucidations and appreciations of the items — as well as in non-traditional, crowd-sourced, hyperlinked ways. The DPLA needs to be rich and ever richer in such tools. The curated works should become ever more embedded into a network of knowledge and appreciation.

So, yes, part of the DPLA should be that it is a huge curated collection of collections. But curation now only has reliable value if it can bring us to appreciate why those curatorial decisions were made. Otherwise, it can seem as if we’re simply looking at that which the trucks left behind.

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October 22, 2011

[2b2k] Joi Ito on transforming the Media Lab from place to network

In an interview with Will Knight at Technology Review, Joi Ito explains some of what he hopes to accomplish as director of the MIT Media Lab, and shows why he was a brilliant choice for the position. “It’s becoming more like a Media Lab ‘network’ than a Media Lab ‘place.'”

And is the case with networked knowledge, the value is in the differences it encompasses:

To take all the different technologies that we have and to connect it with someone like a Kevin Rose, or an Ev Williams, or a Shawn Fanning, that’s a really interesting two-way thing because the students here get how a real Internet startup guy thinks about a product, and how they think about design, and, you know, Shawn [Fanning] can meet people who do real math. To me, that’s a huge synergy that we don’t currently get from, say, relationships with some of the big companies we have.

As for Joi’s interests: ” …for me it’s Internet startups, openness, and human rights. I definitely have that bias.” What an excellent set of biases!

[Disclosure: Like much of the tech world, I count Joi as a friend.]

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July 18, 2010

[2b2k] Long-form and web-form arguments

I just re-read Jay Rosen’s piece on objectivity as persuasion more slowly than I did the first time. It’s like watching a master carpenter bang nails. Beautiful.

Jay’s post is #6 in a series. Jay tells me he has at least one more. So far, he’s written 15,000 words … and his commenters have written 96,000. (That second number seems way too high, but it’s based on my copying and pasting the comments (plus Jay’s integrated roundups) into a text editor. My clerical skills are poor, however.)

For Too Big to Know, I’ve written a section (which means I’ll probably be unwriting it tomorrow) taking these six pieces as an example of one type of long-form writing on the Web … or, more exactly, web-form writing. At the end of the discussion, I list advantages and disadvantages of Jay’s webby version of long-form argument versus standard, book-length, printed long-form arguments. In abbreviated form:

Advantages

1. The argument assumes a natural length.

2. The ground the argument covers is more responsive to the ground itself. Readers will point out neglected areas that the argument requires the author to talk about.

3. The work becomes embedded in a loose-edged discussion that more naturally reflects the messy, intertwingled nature of topics.

4. Readers are given fewer reasons to get off the bus midway. When Darwin writes in Chapter Four of On the Origin of Species that “He who rejects these views on the nature of the geological record, will rightly reject my whole theory,” he’s opening the door and inviting passengers to get off. If Darwin had published in a webby way, he would have discovered unanticipated objections, and he would have been able to meet at least some of them.

5. Ideas get out to their public far faster than the old write-in-private, publish-in-public model.

6. The ideas more successfully escape the grasp of the author so that they can change the world.

7. Readers are more involved in the long argument the author used to be having with himself.

8. The author’s authority gets right-sized. Simply seeing the author engage with readers through comments tells the great percentage of readers who do not leave comments that the author recognizes that her/his words need defense, that her/his authority goes no further than the worth of the ideas.

9. We can see some of the effects of the writer’s words rippling through the culture.

Disadvantages

1. Some people don’t like to work this way.

2. Some arguments work better rhetorically if they are presented all at once.

3. Some ideas won’t do well commercially if developed in public for free. Note, though, that it’s not clear that our assumptions here are correct. Cory Doctorow, among others, has succeeded commercially, as well as in the impact of his ideas, by giving away online access to his books even as he sells hardcopies.

4. The published book is a traditional token of expertise and achievement. They look mighty impressive arrayed on one’s bookshelf.

5. It is harder for us to know what to believe, because more voices are present and in contention.

(By the way, these forms of argument are not mutually exclusive. Both and many more as well are present simultaneously on the Net. On the other hand, traditional long-form arguments posted on the Web inevitably become embroiled in web-form arguments, and thus are not unchanged.)

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February 3, 2010

[2b2] Long-form, wide-form

I woke up this morning with an idea to develop. I’m posting it here prematurely. Ironically (as you’ll see), I want more time to argue for it and tease it out. In fact, in part because I have to prepare for (= rewrite) a talk I give this morning, I’ll leave it at something like Twitter length: We will of course continue to write book-length, long-form arguments, but wide-form arguments are becoming more important (more important than they were and perhaps more important than long-form arguments). Wide-form arguments are spread out across the Web, and develop and apply an idea.

Yes, there are advantages and disadvantages, gains and losses. But, the assessment of them should (in my opinion) begin with an honest look at how important long-form arguments actually have been. It seems to me that most of the long-forms we think of as examples are actually a type of wide-form performed by a single person: Here’s an idea, and here’s some of its implications. The idea itself frequently is a short-form argument. Wide-forming the argument can develop the idea in unexpected ways and can apply it in unexpected circumstances.

Anyway, gotta go.

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