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Are heritage institutions ‘living the digital shift’? #DISH2011, 1

7 december 2011 Gepubliceerd door Laat uw gedicht achter

Today and tomorrow I am attending the DISH 2011 conference, or: Digital Strategies for Heritage, a biannual international conference organised by the DEN Foundation and The Netherlands Institute for Heritage (Erfgoed Nederland), two Dutch institutions with remits to promote (ICT) innovation in the cultural heritage sector. Paraphrasing first keynote speaker Katherine Watson of the European Cultural Foundation (ECF), the question apparently still must be asked: ‘Are the arts, culture and heritage living the digital shift?’

The conference covers many angles of the digital shift, but obviously I will be on the lookout for sessions and papers dealing with long-term access. Having that focus makes it easier to make choices at this conference, which boasts three blocks of no fewer than fifteen (!) simultaneous parallel sessions – which means you always miss 14/15th of what’s on offer. That’s a lot to miss, and somebody tweeted: I hope the three plenary keynote presentations make up for the ‘sacrifice’.

Did they? I can only give you my own answer: yes and no. Yes in the sense that they gave us a powerful picture of what present-day digital culture is all about. But for me, personally, the three keynotes pretty much covered the same ground and thus I would have been happier with just one keynote and more opportunity to attend a workshop. My preferred keynote would not have come from Katherine Watson or from Charles Leadbeater (although they made good points), but from Amber Case, a ‘cyborg anthropologist’ studying the tools we make for ourselves. These are ‘no longer extensions of our physical selves, but extensions of our mental selves’. Case described the collections of digital photographs that we all have as a ‘Mary Poppins bag’  that is weightless – and because it is weightless and sheer unlimited, we do not really feel an acute sense of loss when it goes to waste …. Ah, so that’s why it is so difficult to find funding for digital preservation! Yet, the stuff we put on Facebook and Youtube is as much a historical record of our lives as the murals in the Egyptian pyramids were. Only much more fragile and ‘suspended in mental space’.

Amber Case, ‘living the digital age’, despite her admittedly ‘analogue’ upbringing.
‘In my own back yard, I understood the limits of my mental and physical capabilities.’

Other things we have to come to terms with are the digital age’s ‘simultaneous time’ – there is always somebody awake somewhere in the world and they may be filling your inbox to the brim. Physical proximity to people is losing relevance (‘everybody is always looking at their mobile phones and laptops’ – this conference is no exception) to ‘virtual proximity’ online. We have ‘second selves’ online which we must groom like our first selves. The games we play give us immediate rewards which are addictive. And we shed things and apparatuses like a tree sheds leaves – no more hand-me-downs from previous generations.
This world is fast, it is non-linear, it is mobile; users are actively engaging and have a million choices (Katherine Watson). And, what’s more, according to Amber Case they demand an information/cultural environment in which the interfaces and platforms and websites which we, heritage institutions, have so painstakingly built, disappear entirely into the background. Actions are reduced, queries are eliminated. ‘The best technology is invisible; it gets out of the way and connects people.’ Users want interfaces to make them feel ‘superhuman’, ‘powerful’.

Charles Leadbeater: Users no longer want to be passive receivers, they want to ‘search, enjoy, make, share, do’. The world is becoming ‘asymmetric’: small investments may have big impacts, and vice versa. Traditional roles and responsibilities no longer work. English football, with fixed roles for footballers (offense) and kicking pushing muscle (defense), has been transformed by (Dutch footballer) Johan Cruyff. At Barcelona FC, everybody must be able to play football.

Chair Chris Batt with a breakdown of the audience of
more than 300 attendees, 75% (my estimate) from the Netherlands

Pfffffhhh … I turn my head and look at the many familiar faces in the audience. Colleagues from museums, from archives, from academic libraries. I happen to know about the average age of their staff. I happen to know about their budgets. I happen to know about their closets full of floppy disks and cd-roms. I happen to know about their ageing IT systems. And I think, wow, we’ve got a long way to go …

BTW: my 1/15th of the afternoon programme, a DigCurV workshop about digital curation education, was well worth it. More about that tomorrow!
by Inge Angevaare

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