Wednesday 30 November 2011

Opening remarks for National Digital Forum 2011

[I didn't give references for the quotes I used yesterday when kicking off the NDF2011 proceedings, so I thought I'd pop the text up here in case anyone wanted to follow them up.]

Before I introduce our first speaker for the conference, I wanted to share a few thoughts. They’re not really thoughts of mine - they’re the thoughts of other people, thoughts that have stuck in my head all year, buzzing away quietly in the background and rising to the top whenever I’ve contemplated this moment of standing here in front of you all.
The 20th century has released us into history through technology

This idea comes from broadcaster and author Melvyn Bragg - I found it in one of his In Our Time e-newsletters at the start of the year.

Bragg was talking about a series of radio interviews he’d been doing at radio stations across the England, asking people to contribute photos, videos, diary entries and other memories to be mixed with archival material to create the TV series “The Reel History of Britain”. Bragge said he was:

attempting to encourage people to send in their memoirs, photographs, whatever, to build up this series, so that it widely and fully and properly represents all of us who were part of all of the history of this country over the last 120 years.

Releasing people into history through technology - this is what we’ve been doing for the past ten years. We call what we do harvesting or cataloguing, digitising or preserving, data visualising or crowd-sourcing, community management or customer service, or whatever the latest round of restructuring has deemed our job to involve. But what we’re really doing is working with people to create and share back our collective and collaborative history.
A book is a machine to think with

This line comes from IA Richards’ introduction to his 1924 book Principles of Literary Criticism.  I haven't actually read the book myself - I've just spotted the reference a lot lately.

The line is often cited in debates about the future of the book - contrasted against the idea of a book as ‘tree flakes encased in dead cows’. The full quote goes like this:

A book is a machine to think with. What kind of a machine? Not a bellows or a locomotive but more like a loom on which to re-weave some ravelled parts of our civilisation. 

When you think about books like this they become social items, items which pass through a network of people. In the case of a book, the network includes the writer, the editor, the publisher, the reviewer, the reader: each extracting and absorbing and reusing what they have touched, consciously or otherwise.

The same can be said of all the items we work with: physical, digital, physical made digital, digital made physical. All this stuff, these records of human life and thinking and experience that we are busy collecting, preserving and making available. They are all crucial items in the unending cycle of creation and creativity, and we’re there in the middle of it, helping the wheel turn around. It’s a position of responsibility and privilege and opportunity.  

Data needs spokespeople

I first saw this phrase in a blog post by the urban designer Adam Greenfield, citing a presentation about people-powered data by Elizabeth Goodman, who was in turn citing Bruno Latour, at which point I gave up any hope of understanding the original thought, and decided to take out of it just what I wanted to.

What I wanted was this:

We are swimming in data. Digital New Zealand now has more than 25 million records* in its search API. It can’t print posters advertising this miraculous figure, because it grows faster than their printing budget can keep up with.

Over the past ten years we have mastered the tasks of data: of collecting and preserving and making available. More recently, we’ve been getting so much better at the arts of data: of sharing nicely, of recruiting supporters, of welcoming contributions. The hurdle at which we continue to stumble, however, is letting go.

And I know, I know - I’ve banged my heads against the walls of copyright and donor restrictions with the best of you. But if we are going to continue to play an important role in the cycle of creation and creativity, we are going to have to do even more to not just promote our data for what it is, but to promote it for what people can make of it.  

Giving a shit

This line comes from an article by Alexis Madrigal published in The Atlantic in June this year. He was talking about the tenacity, the bullheadedness, the inspiration and the desire that’s needed for people like us to keep pushing our institutions forward in order to serve the people we are here to serve.

The article is titled ‘What Big Media can learn from the New York Public Library’. Here’s the full quote:

First, I'm convinced the NYPL is succeeding online because of desire. The library's employees give a shit about the digital aspects of their institution, and they are supported in that shit giving. I mean this in the most fundamental way possible and as a damning critique for media companies. Second, the library sees its users as collaborators in improving the collections the library already has. While serving them online costs the library some money, they are creating value, too, by opening up conduits into the library for superusers. 

You don’t work for your line manager, or your director, or your CE. Really, you work for your customers. How much say do they have in what you do? How many decisions are made in their best interests? If you were to ask ‘what is the single best thing we could do to add value to our customers’ lives’, what would it be?

I hope that, as ever, this year’s conference is a chance for you to confirm just what it is that you give a shit about.

*27 million records, as of yesterday

No comments: