Cooperative conservation? On Cooper-Hewitt’s acquisition of a ‘living object’

Posted on September 9, 2013


On 27 August, the Cooper-Hewitt made public news of an interesting acquisition: its first piece of code. If you haven’t yet heard about the acquisition, let me fill you in with the briefest of details: Planetary is an iPad app. The Museum has acquired the app itself, and its source code. In itself, this feels important; an attempt made to combat the rushing waters of time that seek to drive apart software and the hardware that once supported it by holding onto at least the record of what was; the thought processes behind it. But that’s just the beginning…

Where things get compelling for me is what the Cooper-Hewitt has done with that code. They’ve made it public, releasing the source code on GitHub under an open source license, and putting the graphical assets online under a Creative Commons (non-commercial) license. In so doing, the Museum is treating the acquisition as a kind of ‘living object’. As Clive Thompson puts it:

Geeks worldwide can then download and modify it—visualizing collections of books, perhaps, or a constellation of genomes. Public-minded nerds years from now will be able to create “emulators”—software that runs on modern computers but emulates today’s iPad, so people eons from now can see how Planetary appeared in 2013.

Why has Cooper-Hewitt taken this approach? To preserve it. As Seb Chan and Aaron Cope describe in their post about the acquisition, the Museum hopes that making Planetary‘s source code open, it will encourage developers, scholars and enthusiasts to help develop new versions of the app, which can work on different operating systems.

Open sourcing the code is akin to a panda breeding program. If there is enough interest then we believe that Planetary’s DNA will live on in other skin on other platforms. Of course we will preserve the original, but it will be ‘experienced’ through its offspring.

This move, and the associated language used by Chan and Cope to describe it, makes me wonder whether this is the first example in a museum context (beyond zoos, acquaria or other natural living collections) of ‘cooperative conservation’? In an environmental context (which seems appropriate, given the panda metaphor employed by Chan and Cope), cooperative conservation has been defined (by George Bush in a 2004 Executive Order) as:

actions that relate to use, enhancement, and enjoyment of natural resources, protection of the environment, or both, and that involve collaborative activity among Federal, State, local, and tribal governments, private for-profit and nonprofit institutions, other nongovernmental entities and individuals.

Cooperative conservation, then, is a form of collaborative action taken by various entities and individuals with the aim of conserving a species. A cooperative conservation program is:

a breeding and/or management program that aims to conserve a species (in the wild or in captivity, or both) and applies best practice to the management of husbandry, genetics, biology and behavioural needs of the species. The program’s objectives must be based on the conservation status and needs of the species, and the program must not be detrimental to the survival of the species in the wild.

This language feels almost applicable to the Cooper-Hewitt’s decision to conserve Planetary as a physical object (a copy of the source code is also preserved in a machine-readable font on archival paper), and their tag-and-release program, which has seen the code re-enter the wild. The institution has taken the approach to tackle the needs of the species as a living object. Ideally, this will mean that the code can be adapted to suit different purposes and environments, preserving Planetary not simply as app, but as ‘an interaction design that found its ‘then-best manifestation’ in the iPad.’

This raises a few questions, including who exactly is going to be responsible for participating in this cooperative venture, and under what conditions. How will individuals be recruited to invest their time and energy in this kind of cooperative conservation project, and what will compel them to remain part of the Museum’s efforts to preserve Planetary and future projects of this kind?

This morning, I’ve been reading Mathieu O’Neil’s Cyberchiefs: Autonomy and Authority in Online Tribes, in which O’Neil describes the relationship between authority on the Internet and autonomy. In a section on distributed or cooperative production in free-software projects, O’Neil notes (p44)  that:

The availability of source code makes it possible for an unlimited number of individuals to collaborate in its development. This, in itself, it not enough to guarantee that it will be developed: the possibility must be realised by a community of people willing to invest their time and energy. The capacity of project leaders to successfully attract and retain participants and integrate their contributions is crucial for the survival of the project.

Similarly, there is an interesting piece in the Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment journal, on The Promise and Challenge of Cooperative Conservation, which has relevance here. Terrie Klinger and Virginia Dale observe that cooperative conservation has some inherent difficulties in its application, due to the challenges in moving from a system dominated by top-down, regulatory processes to one motivated by shared goals and accomplished through cooperative action. They write:

Efforts will be idiosyncratic, and likely will be motivated by the desire to conserve iconic species, restore special landscape features, or avoid federal regulation. Successes will be patchy in time and space, and there will be mismatches in scale between conservation action and ecological process.

Successful action will depend on the leadership of a few strong actors; consequently, outcomes could be driven by special interests, and the predictability and repeatability of successful action could be low. Durability of successful outcomes will depend on the sustained engagement of interested parties.

Effective vertical integration will be difficult to achieve.

Scientific and technical expertise will often be limiting in projects that rely on volunteers or community groups.

Coalition building and cooperative action will take time and the temporal scale required for cooperation may not match the scale of the threat.

Global climate change will add a new and difficult dimension to all efforts and may overwhelm or undo short-term successes.

Cooperative action will not eliminate conflict, but will change the manner in which conflicts are resolved. Unresolved conflicts will delay action and could accelerate loss or degradation of the resource of interest.

Take out the words ‘ecological’ and ‘climate’ here, and substitute in ‘technological’, and I think these challenges may be similar to the ones that the Cooper-Hewitt and other institutions that take this kind of approach to conserving born digital objects might face. This is not to suggest I don’t think this project will work. Conversely, I think that sites such as Wikipedia demonstrate, there is indeed a hunger for these kinds of participatory projects, and this makes Cooper-Hewitt’s willingness to experiment in this area all the more exciting. However, there is a much higher bar for participation in a project that requires people to hack source code than for someone to make a correction on Wikipedia, or to add a tag to a museum collection, so I wonder whether museums tackling these kinds of acquisitions will need members of staff to take on deliberate roles as online project leaders or focal points for such cooperative ventures.

A few weeks before Cooper-Hewitt made this acquisition public, I wrote a post on museums curating the digital world. In the comments, Nicole Cama and Penelope Hyde from the Australian National Maritime Museum drew attention to the fact that curators working in a digital space might have to negotiate roles including Digital Exhibition, Engagement Curation, and Digital Content Curation, while Koven Smith suggested that in a context where objects are essentially nonrivalrous ‘the curator role [might actually be] a collectivist role (as the ‘editor’ role essentially is with Wikipedia), rather than a specialized one contained within a single person’. Maybe what these kinds of acquisitions and community conservation projects might require is not a curator per se (with the top-down knowledge connotations that come along), but an enabler and engager?

Regardless of these questions, I’m really, really excited by this move by the Cooper-Hewitt. As Seb and Aaron write in their post:

Museums like ours are used to collecting exemplary achievements made manifest in physical form; or at least things whose decay we believe we can combat and slow. To that end we employ highly trained conservators who have learned their craft often over decades of training, to preserve what would often be forgotten and more quickly turn to dust.

But preserving large, complex and interdependent systems whose component pieces are often simply flirting with each other rather than holding hands is uncharted territory. Trying to preserve large, complex and interdependent systems whose only manifestation is conceptual – interaction design say or service design – is harder still.

It’s wonderful that the museum is tackling this question head on. This is a project to watch.

There’s still much to be unpacked here (and in my dissertation!), but I’d be really interested in hearing your reflections on Cooper-Hewitt’s acquisition, and this idea of ‘cooperative conservation’. Do you think that born digital acquisitions can be conserved cooperatively? Is this an apt metaphor? And if so, what do you think might be necessary to make such projects successful?