Sunday, 16 December 2007

L'enfer, c'est les metadata des autres...?

Some reflections and connections on IDCC3, where it was said that l’enfer, c’est les metadata des autres…
As a venue for the IDCC3 pre-conference reception, the National Museum of the American Indian would be hard to surpass, but on Tuesday evening I found myself reflecting on its relevance to an international conference dedicated to the more contemporary challenges of digital curation – assuming, of course, that relevance was a legitimate preoccupation when we were gathered in the midst of such a compelling array of historical artefacts. The connection soon became obvious when, having climbed up through the circuitous galleries, and experiencing an almost seamless transition from watercraft to weaponry to kitchenware and costume, the sense of continuity in the culture of the Indian nations, preserved here and made so very accessible, forged the link with our own gathering. Here, for example, were ceremonial dresses from past centuries displayed alongside their counterparts from the present day, and the motifs from artwork used to celebrate births, battles and harvests from as long ago as 400 years were repeated in the modern representations of the cultural tradition. The only recognisable difference was the brightness of the new beads and the tautness of the fresh braiding.
So what had sustained this cohesion of style and story across several epochs? – a powerful sense of a shared identity, for one, an identity strengthened as the nations of the Chesapeake joined together in the face of massive change, which was being forced upon them by the invasion from Europe. And then there was the simple opportunity to preserve and replicate the physical totems that were important to them for practical or spiritual reasons, three-dimensional objects that could be passed from one hand to another, along with the thoughts and words that were carried by an unbroken oral tradition.

So is that all it took? – that and the dedication of the Museum’s curators, of course. The benefits of a very visible cultural record, the devotion of a community with an allegiance to that culture, it all seemed a long way away from the ‘inhuman’ world described by Rhys Francis the following day, when he referred to the scale of the data deluge as being outside all previous human experience, so vast but invisible.

In his own presentation about the Arts & Humanities, later on Day 1, Myron Gutmann made a valuable contribution to the definition of curation when he referred to it as the preparation of data for preservation and re-use. It also marked the difference between what we were discussing and the manner in which the Indian cultural record had survived. There had been no thoughts of preparation there, only a sense of being. Yet while we might surmise that they had observed no pressing need to devise rules and organisation and standards to ensure preservation and re-use, not when everything was all so familiar and tangible, we can celebrate their concern to preserve the metadata – the designs for the war bonnets, their patterns for the rain dance gowns – and this was metadata with a common currency, free from the threat posed in Clifford Lynch’s reworking of Sartre’s definition of hell.

In that closing keynote speech on Day 2, Clifford Lynch exhorted us to be mindful of the several aspects of scale. Whereas there are huge amounts and types of data being generated, we must take care to understand the characteristics and value of data sets, irrespective of their individual scale, for one person’s Gigabyte may be another’s Petabyte, and data should be selected for preservation with reference to criteria other than mere size. Perhaps, he suggested, one solution that begs more serious consideration is the option to re-compute as an alternative to preservation – just keep the metadata, in a repository of course, not hell – although that strategy would assume the enabling software will remain functional. In parallel to this possibility he pointed out that what we hadn’t discussed over the past two days was loss – i.e. what could we afford to lose? It struck me that perhaps whilst that would be a difficult luxury for our own time it was an even greater imperative for the Indian nations. Reduced and dispersed from their homelands they had already lost much, but there was a feeling that there was yet more that could not be broken.

Carol Goble had opened Day 2 of the conference by declaring that in the realm of digital data we do not have a stable identity or environment. She referred to the traditionally selfish culture of scientific research as Me-Science, and pleaded for a move to We-Science, where there would be true collaboration and sharing, with the reinforcement of tribal bonding and the crossing of tribal boundaries. Had she too been reflecting on the history of the North American Indian, the joining together of the Nanticoke, Piscataway and all those other tribes as the wooden ships from Europe set anchor in the Chesapeake? Or was this simply an axiomatic reflection of the way things always shake down in the end?

At this conference we heard a lot about who should be doing what to ensure the embedding of good curation methodology, standards and processes in the world of e-science. At times it seemed overly top down and fraught with the risk of being unworkable on the grounds of insufficient investment or buy-in from scientific practitioners. We also heard about smart new solutions that were bubbling up from within the e-science community, fit for purpose, potentially short term, and with the credentials that they had been put together by the discipline communities themselves, in order to resolve some very real issues that they were facing.

Oh well, that brings me back to the Indians again…


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