How do you decide what to trust on the Internet?

I often hear people comment that one thing that museums should do as educators in the digital age is teach people how to critically assess the information they encounter on the Internet. Superficially, this sounds pretty smart. But if I’m honest, I don’t think I know for sure how to judge the validity or otherwise of information I come across online. There have been many times when I’ve believed something that wasn’t true, but sounded like it could be. There is enough amazing/crazy/surprising stuff in the world, how can I know which particular example is not – especially when it falls outside an area in which I have a certain level of domain knowledge. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has erred in judgement.

So this is what I want to know: How do you decide what to trust on the Internet? And how much faith do you have in your own capacity to judge veracity and legitimacy?

Finding God in Texas

This was supposed to be the first of my post-MW2013 posts, wrapping up the conference and starting to pull together the underlying themes and ideas that emerged for me during the week in Portland. And then I arrived in Texas, and Google brought me God in the form of a thousand search results; an unexpected kind of creeping normalcy that painted the world a different colour to the way I usually see it. So I thought I’d detour from plan and spend a couple of minutes thinking about some of the immediate questions that this raised for me.

When I search on almost any issue back in Australia, I don’t get a lot of religion in my results. I don’t know whether it’s because we are a largely secular country, or because the profile of people whom otherwise “look” like me to Google (ie, using a Mac, female) in Australia aren’t very religious. Therefore, to look into the Google mirror and find the results reflected back at me so distorted from their usual bent, and from my sense of self, was somewhat jarring. In The Filter Bubble Eli Pariser comments that “from within the bubble, it’s nearly impossible to see how biased it is.” (10) What I think I’ve experienced here in Texas is my first real opportunity to look at the search results presented to me from beyond my normal cocooned perspective. The sensation grates.

It also raises interesting questions for me about the idea of a canon of knowledge, because these kinds of personalised results surely make it much harder to form an agreed-upon body of ideas or frame of reference for history, much less the present. (This is something that Danny Birchall and I touched lightly on in our Museums and the Web paper about curating the digital world.)

I am not even close to making sense of what these kinds of distorting lenses mean for us in museums, but here are some first thoughts. We are all now at the mercy of these kinds of algorithms, because they are in some ways a necessary strategy for coping with the scale of non-hierarchical online information; whether we work in museums or not. The information we have access to, then, is rarely going to be everything we might need or want. This is ok, I think. It’s surely always been the case that with so much information in the world only some has been esteemed over others.

But the perniciousness of algorithmic invisibility, that it is next to impossible to understand how and where those non-neutral search engine biases comes from, seems to present museums with both a challenge and an opportunity. By declaring where our own knowledge is drawn from as it relates to the collection or otherwise, or acknowledging when it is missing or known to be incomplete, we gain the opportunity to act as a different voice within the digital space, with different interests and values. In addition, utilising such an approach could enable those who use our resources to both provide other perspectives by knowing where our conclusions were drawn from.

What do you think? Is this an issue that museums need to tackle, and if so, how should it affect their approach to knowledge sharing and gathering?

Biophilia – Björk

Björk’s app album Biophilia is pretty well the coolest thing I’ve come across in ages. I downloaded the app this afternoon, and promptly lost myself exploring music and music-making, games and visuals. Have a listen to David Attenborough’s introduction to the app/album below:

This is everything that an app should be. It just spills over with creativity, and invites participation and creativity from its users in kind. Through experiments with science, and essays enclosed within, the app promotes learning too. Mind you, if this is the start of a new wave of creativity in apps then museums and other institutions who pride themselves on making knowledge and education accessible could be left fighting for relevancy. Or maybe we should just be looking for awesome and creative new partnerships to explore.

The Internet, GLAMs and the production of new knowledge

In line with my involvement in the Digital Culture Public Sphere in the last week, one major question that has been surfacing time and time again during the discussions: How do we pitch GLAM organisations as being for the future, rather than simply about old things, and nostalgia? Or, in other words, how can we make GLAMs sexy to politicians?

Museums are often thought of as being about ‘old stuff” and stories. Much of our publicly recognised value still seems to be in the kind of nostalgia or memory arena. We can absolutely see this in the kind of language that was used within the National Culture Policy Discussion Paper, in which cultural institutions have the following “pitch”:

The Government also funds national collecting institutions which perform a central role in preserving and making Australia’s art and culture accessible. These institutions have traditionally centred their activities on collections management which includes documentation, conservation and exhibition. However, changing community expectations of access and service have created additional areas of common interest, including education, interpretation, regional delivery and digitisation of collections.

Even in this policy language, the view of cultural collecting institutions is really only about preservation and accessibility of art and culture. The value of our collections is seen to only reach so far as education and interpretation.

But right now, GLAMs have far greater potential in the creation of new knowledge, particularly with the incredibly rich data that’s held within and around our collections. In a data economy, we are actually incredibly rich with the sort of data that no one else has.

Ben Goldacre at the Guardian published an article on Friday, arguing for the incredible value of everyday government data. He writes

Amazing things happen when you pull individual pieces of information together into larger linked datasets: meaning emerges, as you produce facts from figures. If you’ve ever wished you were born in the 19th century, when there were so many obvious inventions and ideas to hook for yourself, then I seriously recommend you become a coder, because future nerds will look back on this time with the exact same envy. But that leap forward will be tediously retarded if we don’t make the government allow us to use the pavements.

This is the same argument that I’ve started making in regards to GLAM collections. As I said in my Public Sphere presentation:

We cannot now even imagine the full possibilities that might come from the uploading of our collections to the Internet… Who knows what possibilities for new discovery, new knowledge and new insight lie hidden in the collections of our museums, galleries, libraries and archives? Digitising our collections and making them available online in usable forms… will lead to incredible new opportunities for cultural institutions to gain new relevance in the global knowledge economy.

GLAM collecting institutions have incredible information resources that can tell incredible, and hitherto hidden, stories about the development of society and of the natural world. We should be partnering with researchers, scientists and data visualisation specialists. Although we might hold expertise on our collections at an object level, or even a collection level, there is new knowledge that is held within our collections that will be liberated when we can pull together the individual pieces of information, and find new meanings.

The Internet, and Linked Open Data, really do liberate our cultural institutions to be more than just the sum of their parts. Now might be the time that GLAMs really do come into their own, as public institutions that truly serve the public both off- and online.

‘Knowledge is power, but secret knowledge is also power.’

I came across the title for this post in the comments section of an article discussing the recent releasing of JSTOR academic documents by Aaron Swartz, where fred_bauder writes: Knowledge is power, but secret knowledge is also power.

It’s an interesting sentiment. Around the time of the wikileaks US diplomatic cables leak I remember reading an article about privacy in this age where the author asserted that the only way that people could now guarantee that secrets would be kept secret was to ensure they were never recorded or written down; that governments, businesses and individuals could all now be called accountable for everything ever committed to paper/email/device. In some ways, this has always been true… people have always been held accountable by what was recorded – be it on paper or tape – but things are publishable now with renewed vigor and ease, and that changes the game somewhat. The relationship between secrecy and power seems to be shifting.

Shortly after the wikileaks scandal, I had a conversation with a psychiatrist about the implications of the above, and he mentioned that for similar reasons he no longer records (non-critical) material in someone’s files that could one day be used against them. He no longer trusts in the sanctity of the files, because there is the possibility that with time, anything recorded could become public (if in doubt, check out this article about the Mug-Shot Industry [That] Will Dig Up Your Past, Charge You to Bury It Again).

Knowledge is power, but secret knowledge is also power…

So why do I think this is important for museums? As museums put their collections online, they may be held newly accountable for what is and is not recorded within them. The public may (if they choose to look) become aware of ways in which museum records are incomplete, or even contain information that has been shown to be false since it was initially written down. This is not necessarily a negative thing. As Seb Chan noted in his MW2007 paper Tagging and Searching – Serendipity and museum collection databases on the Powerhouse Museum’s OPAC2:

the exposure of these records, and their increased searchability, especially through Google, has led to the Museum receiving additional contextual information about objects, or corrections to research. Sometimes this additional information comes from international experts, collectors and researchers, but at other times, as was the case with a convict love token, it comes through community members researching their family histories – and simply searching for a series of family names in Google.

But it is indicative of the fact that as museum collection documentation becomes available online, it is open to new scrutiny.

Paradoxically, this openness does little to challenge the fact that museums are, and have always been, secret societies filled with people who have special knowledge about the objects in the collection that not everyone is privy to. In their earliest iterations, museums were places for philosophical societies to meet, serving as a locus for research about the world. Even once museums became public institutions, the aim was to teach those without knowledge about the world and the collection. However, there is always a power imbalance between those with knowledge (and power) and those without it. All knowledge is secret knowledge if it is not freely and fairly available to all parties, and to some extent this is precisely where museum power is drawn from.

Museum knowledge is stored not only in our artefacts and documentation but importantly also in our people. We speak in secret languages (taxonomies) and have often-silent rules of accepted and acceptable behaviour that can be daunting to the ‘uninitiated’ (a term which is itself loaded with implications). Museum power is not in the things that have been committed to print – it’s in the knowledge of staff and their intuitive understanding of objects and collections. It’s in the judgements made when curating exhibitions. It’s in all the silent things that can never be fully recorded.

Julia Noordegraaf, in her book Strategies of Display: Museum Presentation in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Visual Culture, writes about a similar schism that occurred in museum display in the nineteenth century. She writes (emphasis mine):

There is a paradox in the fact that most nineteenth-century museums were designed to accommodate large groups of visitors, while at the same time provided little information about the objects on display. Whereas the museum was thought to be a civilising and cultivating institution, its presentation was aimed at people who could find their own way through it and could interpret the objects on display by themselves. According to James Sheehan, this tension between the general and the exclusive lay at the code of nineteenth-century culture and society, ‘[…] the tension between the aspiration to have institutions that would be open to everyone and the structural inequalities that made these institutions inaccessible to all but a minority of the population.’

The paradox can perhaps be explained from the fact that in the nineteenth century, museums were conceived as places as much for the research or the advancement of knowledge as for popular instruction or the diffusion of knowledge. Until the end of the century, when museum innovators like Henry Flower recognised the need for different types of display for these different aims, museums were trying to fulfil both aims with one and the same type of display. It seems that in the nineteenth century, museum managers designed the script of museum presentation from the idea that educating the people simply meant opening the museum doors to everyone.[1]

Museums may be opening the virtual doors to their collections to everyone. However, this doesn’t mean that the audience is equipped with the same knowledge as the museum curator or educator. Even with digital openness, museums still have secret knowledge – and secret knowledge is also power.

[1] Julia Noordegraaf, “Strategies of Display: Museum Presentation in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Visual Culture,” ed. Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Rotterdam (Rotterdam: NAI Publishers, 2004). 80. Noordegraaf quotes from Sheehan: Museums in the German Art World 2000: 115.

There is a man behind the curtain

In a couple of weeks, I’m giving one of my first ever lectures. The subject is Museums, Galleries and the Politics of Institutions, which is a thoroughly juicy and exciting topic. Colour me excited!

I’ve just started ‘building’ my lecture, but already I’ve had an unexpected realisation about both teaching and museums. Until now, it’s never really occurred to me the extent to which every class I’ve ever attended, and every museum I’ve ever visited, constructs the information and stories within. The message is not just built around what is important to say, but also on what will fit within the limitations of time and space; on what will make a compelling story; and on the personal whims and preferences of the information architect.

This observation is so obvious, I don’t quite understand how it hasn’t smacked me square in the jaw before. As much as I’ve ‘known’ that museums can never tell ‘truth’ since every story has innumerable sides, the reality of that situation had never occurred to me so starkly until I had to create a lecture on the subject.

You see, I want to give the students insight into the historical development of museums; to educate them about (some of) the myriad of ways that the choices made in museums are political; to equip them to start seeing museums and exhibitions through critical eyes; and, ideally, to inspire them and capture their imaginations. And I’ve only got an hour in which to achieve all this.

It’s a big ask. Due to the time limits, I will obviously have to leave out far more than I can include, and the things that I do decide to include will be those that are both relevant/important and that reinforce the narrative direction I decide to construct.

And that’s the kicker. The information that makes the cut will be the information that best helps me tell a compelling story – one that is logical, and memorable, and in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The examples I use in the lecture will not necessarily be the most critical – they will be the ones that best help make my argument. I’ve looked at the examples used by the lecturer who gave the course last year, and they are entirely different from my choices. He and I used the same subject as a starting point, but each of us constructed a very different lecture – and a different story.

Yet most students will probably hear my lecture and believe that the information I give them is the canonical stuff that they need to know, simply because of the forum in which it is presented. In choosing works of art to focus on, I will be privileging those works and artists simply by drawing attention to them in the context of a lecture. It is a great responsibility. If I choose (intentionally or by neglect) only to talk about works of art by men, or European artists, or painters and sculptors but leave out video artists, then I too am guilty of neglecting to present a whole perspective about the subject… and yet I will have to make said choices because of the limitations of time. Therefore, my lecture is every bit as political as its focus.

Curators too are faced with these difficult choices. It is never possible to include everything when constructing an exhibition. Doing so would probably make the exhibition less clear and less impactful. But visitors don’t necessarily consider this. Most visitors will accept at face value that what is included is there because it was the most deserving – not because it best illustrated a point, or was the only appropriate work in the museum collection. This is precisely why museums are such political institutions.

I have known this at some theoretical level for years. I’ve taken dozens of courses at University and worked in museums for a little while. But it was not until constructing my own lecture on a subject that is so open-ended, with many possible paths that the journey could take, that I gained real insight into the extent that my own knowledge has been constructed around the ‘curatorial’ choices of my teachers. It’s been fascinating.

I think we have a responsibility when teaching people about history – or anything – to provide them with a story that is clear and legible. Without that, they are unlikely to learn at all. But I also think that we as teachers – whether in universities or in museums – have a responsibility to remind people that what we select for such a purpose is not the be all and end all of knowledge, and that the lecture or the exhibition is a great starting point but it should not be the final destination.

And I think this is the ultimate message that I am hope to get across to the students. I am going to use the process of constructing a lecture as a metaphor for the process of constructing an exhibition, and show them that there is a real person behind the choices that get made – and that those choices have real meaning. Thus, I think I will finish my lecture with a statement like this:

This lecture, like a museum exhibition and like every lecture you’ve ever sat in, does not tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
It weaves one story of the history of museums. It leaves out more than it includes.
It is not neutral. It is never neutral.

I hope they get the point.

If a tree falls in a museum, and no one is there to hear it…

Australian IT policy advisor Pia Waugh has just posted the first of a series of four posts on online culture. This one, titled Unicorns and Doom, investigates some of the ways that the Internet is changing mainstream culture. As she writes

Using the Internet changes your expectations of the world around you, and importantly your expectations of how you can interact with the world.

The entire post is compelling, and I would recommend that everyone should read it. However, I am going to pull out a few of her key points now and dissect them a little bit for what they mean for museums.

Waugh argues that there are four expectations/behaviours that we develop when we engage online. These are the expectation that we can route around damage – or find new paths around any form of artificial interference; healthy skepticism – that we can examine and question information, particularly official information that doesn’t necessarily gel with other evidence; an expectation of transparency and accountability; and an expectation that through “do-ocracy” or people power, it really is possible to make significant changes to the world.

In her post, Pia expands on each of these ideas considerably. However, I’ll now just grab a couple of her ideas in brief for closer examination. She writes:

When we want to know about something, we automatically look it up online. We expect to be able to get information on any subject we choose and when information is not forthcoming we ask why.

This is one of the very real and compelling reasons why I do think that museum collections do need to be online… When Koven asked what’s the point of a museum website at MW2011, and again in his Ignite speech, my first answer was (and continues to be) that as we become more and more reliant on the Internet as the storage space for the sum of human knowledge and information (as seems to be happening) then if something is not online it will almost be as if it doesn’t exist. It’s the tree falling in the woods argument reframed… if you have objects in your collection that could be useful to human society – whether to a researcher or someone else – and they can’t find or access that information (even just at a basic level to know that the object is in your collection), does that object have any purpose? How can it tell us anything about ourselves/our past/culture if we don’t even know it exists?

Now this is a very different question of how we make that information useful and useable – and I think that is an entirely unresolved problem (see Mia Ridge’s post on death by aggregation). But as our social expectations regarding information change, it really is becoming the case that if information about something is not accessible online, then we look for other information. Even as a researcher, I will look online at my library’s collection to see what books they have that I might be able to use well before I make the trip into the physical location. That’s not to say that serendipity won’t guide my search once I’m there, but the initial impulse usually occurs when I’m not in situ – and my future actions are predicated on the information that I find online.

Waugh’s post continues:

The Internet has democratised both access to and “publishing” of knowledge. The control of knowledge has always been a power mechanism, and we are now seeing a significant struggle as traditional knowledge and power brokers find themselves continually flanked by individuals and communities.

This is something I’ve wanted to write about for a little while now. The publishing of knowledge, and control over information, is something that has obviously been important for museums historically. It was a key aspect of how museums maintained their authority, by making some claim to control over the objects of our past and the information about those objects, and therefore about our past.

However, authority online comes from (appearing to have) visibility of process, rather than from hiding behind safe institutional walls. This means that organisations need to be work harder to ensure consistency between what they say they do and what they actually do, since they will be called to account if people notice gaps between the rhetoric and the action.

Pia argues that the ease with which we can access, engage with and hold accountable anyone online makes it easier for people to make informed choices, and I would agree. This article by Richard Smith from the Journal of Financial Transformation provides an interesting perspective into transparency and trust in the ‘post-Gutenberg era’, or the era of social media (although focussed on business institutions and brands). He writes:

In the Gutenberg world, trust was institutionalized. Organizations worked to establish reputations such that people would trust anything and everything they did without feeling the need to interrogate it for themselves. This worked because it was efficient, from the organization’s perspective, and because individuals recognized that they could not (or could not be bothered to) comprehensively interrogate all the organizations they dealt with. They would accept an organization’s ‘institutionalized representation’ of itself (its brand) — provided they could have a level of reassurance that this representation was reasonably accurate.

Trust within social media is not vested in institutions, it is vested within visible processes. The best way to explain this is to look further at the Wikipedia example and its battle with Encyclopaedia Britannica. The Encyclopaedia Britannica is a classic example of institutionalized trust. You trust its entries based on your knowledge of the reputation for accuracy it has established and carefully nurtured over the years. You do not feel the need to look behind or interrogate this reputation in any way. Wikipedia is totally different. You trust its entries purely on the fact that it has made visible the way that entry was produced and refined. Even if you do not choose to examine the history of every entry, the simple fact that you can do this and there is a process in place which means somebody is doing this, gives you a level of trust. Critically, an element of this trust is based around the need for you to make your own assessment of the process and how much trust you will decide to allocate to it.

It is not that people are going to reject institutionalized trust, but the task of sustaining it is going to become much harder in the world of transparency brought about by social media. Organizations will, therefore, find that ultimately the only efficient way to maintain trust is to switch to a model based on process, which will mean creating the ability to see in much greater detail how an organization goes about its business.

As Pia’s post indicates, mainstream culture is changing as a result of the Internet. What this means for museums – particularly online – is still open to significant debate. But it is important to look at the significant and apparently lasting trends occurring within technology and the ways society is changing as a result to get a sense of how and where the museum website fits.

On “The Museum of the Future”

The Atlantic recently unearthed a couple of rather sweet articles from its great archives (a reminder that everything we know now is connected to that which has been previously discovered).

One of the articles is Walter Lippman’s 1948 vision for The Museum of the Future. He makes a pretty lovely case for the importance of museums:

The experience of man, and the creations, inventions, discoveries of men throughout the ages and in an infinite variety of circumstances, transcend our personal lives and our immediate interests. This inheritance is worth collecting and preserving and using—whatever our transient hopes and fears… Without the accumulated achievements of the past to work upon, the freedom of men would be limited by the necessity of rediscovering and of repeating endlessly that which has already been discovered and experienced. And since life is short and art is long, not much would be discovered, and little would be created.

However, his sentiments are preceded in an article from 1893 by Edward S Morse, titled If Public Libraries, Why Not Public Museums? I find it fascinating to realise not much longer than a century ago, in America at least, the case for museums is not yet made… So what does Morse see as being the special role of the museum? He writes:

the building of a museum requires special gifts and special training. Besides, one thoroughly imbued with the spirit of a collector should have charge of a museum… The absence of a public demand for museums in the past has arisen from the methods of public instruction. Lessons from books, and not from nature, have been the tiresome lot of school children. Questions and answers, cut and dried, have tended to deaden the inquiring spirit.

Thomas Greenwood, the author of a special work on museums and art galleries, expresses his belief that “the museum of the future must stand side by side with the library and the laboratory, as a part of the teaching equipment of the college and the university, and in the great cities cooperate with the public library as one of the principal agencies for the enlightenment of the people.”… A museum seems as much an integral part of the public library as are the experiments part of a lecture on chemistry or physics. If the public library is established primarily for educational purposes, surely the public museum should come in the same category. The potency of an object in conveying information beyond all pages of description is seen in the fact that in the museum a simple label associated with a veritable object is often sufficient to tell the story at a glance; the eye seizes the essentials at once.

Taken together, we get a sense that the legacy of the museum is to enliven learning and to leave the traces of man’s experience writ large upon the world so that we can truly understand who we are, and how our world works (oh were it only so simple). But maybe these early visions can provide some perspective to the question that keeps popping up from those working in digital heritage: what would a museum look like if it was invented today?

Despite being written in 1948, Lippman’s vision seems almost slightly prescient of what the future could hold for museums as we move further into the digital age (emphasis added):

One can imagine, I venture to think, that the museum of the future will have two departmentsone the sanctuary where the unique objects, the irreplaceable relics, are preserved and exhibited for the veneration and the enjoyment of those who make the pilgrimage; the other department in effect a library for the student, the scholar, and the amateur, where they can find, as in any library, collected in one place and readily accessible to them various editions of the unique objects which are scattered in the sanctuaries all over the world.

Lippman’s vision for a museum of the future so articulated does not sound so different from the clearly delineated ‘departments’ we now find as museums move online, with the physical museum akin to Lippman’s sanctuary, the the digital collection likened to his library. How the second of these develops further is the next interesting question… So what will the museum of the future really look like?