Friday, May 30, 2008

The Hive Archive

The final roundtable session of the Social Computing Workshop was introduced by Nancy Van House of U.C. Berkeley who has been working on the archeology of the Presidio with her students but has faced pedagogical challenges on the project because her graduate students proved not to be sophisticated "digital natives" when faced with the laundry list of tool literacies that were necessary to do the work: Macs, Google docs, digital cameras, Nokia N95 cameraphones, GPS, GIS, Flickr, Piknik, Bluetooth, video, digital audio recorders, Sophie, the Sophie reader, and Wordpress blogging. She even admitted learning that her own expert personal archiving practices were flawed from the research of Cathy Marshall and her advice about backing up data. Yet these "reputation mechanisms" also have promise in stimulating academic research and teaching. For example, she showed an interesting slide of a reconstruction of an archaeological site being excavated in Turkey that had been visualized in Second Life.

Although Van House lamented that there was "no business model for free and open information" and that our relative "autonomy as academics" made it hard to understand market pressures, Citizendium's Larry Sanger presented a much more optimistic narrative of the near future. He predicted that by 2020 or 2030 there would be "enormous amounts of free and credible content." Although the credibility problem may not be completely solved and one might have to pay a fee to get books, he listed on the blackboard all the cultural valuables that were being digitized: books, journals, encyclopedias, and archives. Although he conceded that it would continue to be true that the Internet would be "mostly crap, since that’s what people are interested in, just like television," he thought that the fact that people are increasingly likely to "expect information to be free" would make the development of a vast online research archive inevitable.

In response, some in the audience questioned whether it was really possible to make value judgments about "good" and "bad" content, since -- as Tad Hirsch noted -- political ideology and repressive government could play a role in suppressing certain important kinds of cultural imaginaries. However, Sanger defended his point and further asserted that "neutrality was not about relativism but about tolerance." As the conversation progressed Alan Liu showed some tricky case studies, such as the obvious bias in the articles on "The Theory of Evolution," "The Earth," and other scientific subjects in Conservapedia and the Wikipedia lockdown of the article on Muhammed because it contained images of the prophet that offended some Islamic readers. As further caution, William Warner opined that too many sources of interest to humanities scholars would still be barred from this utopian archive because of copyright restrictions on music and video.

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