Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Patrimonial Intentions

I will admit that I have certain feelings about the French Ministry of Culture that most normal people would associate with the Internal Revenue Service. I am in awe of their authority; I feel a lot of deference toward their power over my psyche; and I dread going inside any of their buildings and confronting my own cultural anxieties and insecurities that go back to long before I studied with Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard in graduate school and corresponded with Claude Lévi-Strauss. Most people who know me will attest to the fact that I am a pretty hard-core Francophile, particularly during World Cup play in either soccer or rugby, but since I only speak the language for about three days in a given year, carrying on a formal conversation in connection with any kind of official business is very much like the disproportionate relationships involved with some Kafka hero being called before the Law.

Nonetheless, I took a deep breath and ended my European trip with an extensive interview with Christophe Dessaux and Sonia Zillhardt at the Ministry of Culture to discuss the digitization policies of their nation-state. It was a long conversation, in which they both seemed interested in the turned tables of having librarians become the object of study, but it was a bit frustrating because they often went back to their well-rehearsed talking points or the text of official reports. So in terms of the "field work" aspect of learning about social conflicts and belief systems in digitization or software development projects from talking with native informants, there wasn't as much to go on for getting a sense of the story of what wasn't built through revealing anecdotes or suggestive language choices. This is what "media archeologist" Erkki Huhtamo has called the "cryptohistories" of the study of digital culture, and it's a necessary part of scholarship that would otherwise be missed in field full of whizz bang demos, congratulatory narratives about technological progress, and endless corporate and institutional self-promotion efforts.

I left the meeting with a sense of incoherence about their national digitization strategy. They were still thinking about digitization efforts in terms of particular online exhibits, such as materials about the history of slavery, rather than true Internet-based libraries that would facilitate original interdisciplinary scholarship.

Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable moments in the interview was when I pointed out that the Web 3.0 material that they aimed me toward in the latest issue of Culture & Recherche involved Second Life, which for all the media hype, could be problematic given its proprietary software and extremely restrictive end user license agreements and its re-instantiation of the digital divide for the smaller group with more current graphics cards and nimble computers. When I visited the Second Louvre, at this publication's suggestion, I found it totally empty, as many have commented about SL environments.

Much of their conversation also involved the importance of policing copyright in ways that indicated a surprisingly narrow interpretation of fair use. As agents of cultural production, they argued, their advocacy role for producers of art was critical. They argued that stopping piracy was much more central to their organization than facilitating a "remix culture" with the materials that they had put online. For all their talk about democratization, they also seemed remarkably disinterested in user-generated content on Ministry of Culture sites and were still thinking about the feedback loop only in terms of the "contact us" e-mail or message.

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