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Navigating Culture in an Age of Digital Abundance – Presentation

[updated 19 November 2014]

Today I am giving an Ignite! talk at the Being Human Festival, based today at Senate House at the University of London. The overall theme of today is “Too Much Information,” and I am excited to be taking part! As an Ignite! presenter, I will have five minutes and twenty slides to present on my topic–Navigating Culture in an Age of Digital Abundance.” Each slide will be on screen for 15 seconds.

I’ve done similar things before, but usually as Pecha Kuchas, where you get 20 slides at 20 seconds per slide, for a total of six minutes 20 seconds. Ignite is quite a bit shorter, necessitating some difficult choices with regards to images, talking points, and how best to get my point across.

In brief, my presentation argues that the best way to think about information overload in a digital age is to better think about how we can develop systems and networks to make information more usable. This information could be catalogue holdings, youtube videos, scanned books, music files, whatever. The important thing is that for this mass of content to be discoverable, usable, and enjoyable, it has to be organised and accessible. Trusting in crowdsourced networks to assess goods and media, to organise and catalogue, and to recommend content is perhaps the only effective way to grapple with the sheer numbers. As Clay Shirky says, “It’s not information overload–it’s filter failure.” And the best way to make filters is to join together in networks and do so as a community, a radical change from how culture and knowledge have been put forward in the past.

Given the time constraints, I’ve pasted my slides below in PNG format; those in the room might find it easier to revisit and/or follow along here than in real time!

[Edit: Since presenting, I have gone through and added text to these slides, giving a more accurate, though not word for word, account of the presentation and significance of each slide.]

 

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Hi everyone! I am here to present on Navigating Culture in and Age of Digital Abundance (With a little help from my friends).

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My name is Daniel Powell, and I am currently a Marie Curie Fellow at the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London, as well as a doctoral candidate at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada.

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As the theme of this session suggests, we are overloaded with information. The British Library holds around 14 million books, out of a total of about 150 million items.

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They’re not alone; iTunes has over 43 million songs, 300,000 TV shows, and 85,000 films. Google Books has digitised about 30 million books out of their projected total of 129 million books published during human history.

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These kinds of numbers are not new. This is a cartoon and poem from Punch, published in 1850, showing a man overwhelmed by the catalogue of the British Museum Library. They tried to print a catalogue from 1841-1855 or so but gave up because it was too big.

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They’re hard at work to solve these types of problems though, the BL. They recently released, for example, over a million images on Flickr for public use and, perhaps more importantly, for open tagging and organisation.

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We do these kinds of things all the time, organising information and actively contributing to a culture of knowledge on the web. We contribute Amazon product reviews, for instance, on products like this one.

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We build knowledge in ways that even a decade ago were unimaginable, as in this page on the history of the Iraq War. This is knowledge, and history, made by you and me. I could go change this right now. So could you.

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The ways in which we make knowledge, and how we make and use culture, are changing. Knowledge and culture are moving from something some one does to something we do together.

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So you can go to Transcribe Bentham and help transcribe the manuscripts of philosopher and thinker Jeremy Bentham, hundreds of thousands of which have never been seen outside an archive. This project is based at UCL up the road.

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Or you can help record what restaurants in New York City were serving for the last hundred years. The NY Public Library has thousands upon thousands of these menus that are unknown and unusable. You can make them available again.

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Zooniverse at the University of Oxford has developed a number of projects, from identifying the shapes of galaxies to recording World War I diaries to tracing weather patterns using ships logs for research on climate change.

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You can even help build a scholarly edition, as with the Devonshire Project. This edition is mounted on Wikibooks and open to editing by you, me, and everyone. Anyone can intervene in this key document from the court of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII.

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These projects point to the idea that the way we do knowledge is changing. It is less and less like this, with someone like me standing in front of a room lecturing to a crowd of rapt listeners.

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And culture overall is less and less a silent group of people crowded around a radio or television, receiving what someone else is sending out.

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More and more, culture and knowledge is moving from a one-to-one structure to a many-to-many structure, with us gathered around virtual tables, mixing boards, and canvasses.

 

 

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Instead of one to one transmission, we are increasingly parts of a network that is dense, complex, and above all active. That little white space in the middle could be me, it could by you, it could be anyone.

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So although we’re talking about too much information and information overload, the issue is not so much that there is too much information. It’s that we’re bad at getting what we need, at knowing what to use, at figuring out what to trust. Our filters are broken.

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Part of fixing our filters and successfully using knowledge and building culture is to embrace this shift to the idea of networks of social knowledge. Filters are best built by us, for each other, as needed. Information, and its use, is social, but it should be consciously social.

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Thanks for coming out!

 


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