this is aaronland

verb impostors

Quantified Selfies

I had the privilege of attending and speaking at the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program's Digital Preservation 2013 conference yesterday. I was asked to be part of a panel discussing Innovative Approaches to Digital Stewardship and I gave a very different talk than I might have given two months ago, but life is sometimes an 800-pound gorilla that way. I did not set out to write part 3 of the New Aesthetic talks but if I had it probably would have looked something like this. I, at least, can see the sweater threads that connect them. Parts one and two are both available online if you're curious. This is what I said:

I'm going to start with a quote by Umberto Eco, from a piece he wrote shortly after the WikiLeaks cables were released:

I once had occasion to observe that technology now advances crabwise, i.e. backwards. A century after the wireless telegraph revolutionised communications, the Internet has re-established a telegraph that runs on (telephone) wires. (Analog) video cassettes enabled film buffs to peruse a movie frame by frame, by fast-forwarding and rewinding to lay bare all the secrets of the editing process, but (digital) CDs now only allow us quantum leaps from one chapter to another. High-speed trains take us from Rome to Milan in three hours, but flying there, if you include transfers to and from the airports, takes three and a half hours. So it wouldn’t be extraordinary if politics and communications technologies were to revert to the horse-drawn carriage.

This is not a talk about WikiLeaks but hold on to his words and treat them as a kind of soundtrack music for the rest of this presentation.

Hi, my name is Aaron. I am not a trained museum professional. I am not even a trained computer programmer. If anything I studied painting but I am mostly part of that generation for whom everything changed, and who dropped everything they were previously doing, when the web came along. These days I am the Head of Internet Typing at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

We are part of the Smithsonian. We are not in Washington like the other Smithsonian museums. Instead we are located on the Upper East Side of Manhattan in Andrew Carnegie's old mansion. The Cooper-Hewitt became part of the Smithsonian in the late 1960s and our history is the collection amassed by the Hewitt sisters with a strong emphasis on the decorative arts. In the 90s we took on the mantle of being a national design museum and we've been working through everything that means since then, particularly in a world where design is becoming increasingly intangible.

We are closed until 2014 and are renovating the physical space as well as the digital infrastructure that increasingly holds it all together and a big part of my time is spent helping to imagine what it means for the Cooper-Hewitt to be native to the Internet and the rest is spent figuring out how to build it.

I am going to talk around the work we're doing at the Cooper-Hewitt rather than about the specifics, today. Rather I am going to talk more broadly about the kind of continuous partial event horizon we are all operating in these days to try and better articulate a rationale – also a kind of soundtrack music – for "why" we are doing the things we are because we are still feeling our way through the "how".

This is my new favourite Twitter account. It's an account that someone set up for a 300 pound bi-pedal robot called ATLAS courtesy the smart people at Boston Dynamics. Looking at it one can only imagine what it will end up being used for but it's being still promoted as a tool for humanitarian crises and disaster relief scenarios.

Either way it's worth considering that given the cost of storage these days one of these robots could come pre-loaded with all of human knowledge on them which is interesting because I like to imagine them walking the Earth retelling our histories to strangers over camp fires.

And if we start to imagine that robots like these are "people" or "people enough" what do they see? Even if we understand that they don't really see anything when do we care enough about the history of their observations that we forgive them their lack of awareness the same way that a design museum forgives an object that no longer works and collect it anyway?

This is my still favourite Twitter account.

I show this slide a lot, first, because we actually have a Roomba in our collection and, second, because things like this Twitter account are what it means to be a museum in 2013.

It is most definitely not about Twitter. Twitter is important because its the easiest, dumbest tool available to people but its still just the delivery mechanism. It's about the fact that some random person out there on the Internet is building a record of understanding about Roombas that may well rival anything we will ever do ourselves.

Beyond that, we are being forced to accept the fact that our collections are becoming "alive". Or at least they are assuming the plausible illusion of being alive. We are having to deal with the fact that someone else might be breathing life in to our collections for us or, frankly, despite us. We are having to deal with the fact that it might not even be a person doing it.

We are watching as the world around us creates communal proofs of our collections.

That idea of a communal proof is something I talk a lot about at the museum.

We have about 217 thousand objects in our collection and currently 123 thousand of them are publicly viewable. Of those that are public only about one-fifth of those objects have been digitized and quite a lot of the metadata we've collected can only charitably be described as poor.

This is okay. Or rather, it can only get better from here. More importantly by standing these records up in public we take the first baby-steps towards lending them enough weight and mass in the universe that other things might orbit them.

In the absence of our ability or willingness to let people roam our storage facilities we want to replace the blind faith that currently defines the existence of things in our collection with something a little more concrete. We want people to feel confident enough to bother sharing in their reality. The digital proxies are still just that. They don't replace the objects but they enable two people to point to and to share the same URL and in doing so make tangible that which is otherwise so invisible that it might as be a purely conceptual device.

That ability to create, to participate in, communal proofs is I think one of the reasons we saw the rise of "social media". Social media is just buzzword bingo for a deep vein that has always been present throughout history: We all want to leave traces of our lives — proofs — and that’s something which found, in the Internet and the communications technologies of the last decade, the necessary conditions to blossom in a way that had never been possible before. Maybe the only way to truly leave a mark on history is through violent conquest or by erecting a 700-storey building or by carving your face in to the side of a mountain but I think Internet culture demonstrates that there's a real and profound desire to imagine a different way.

Which is great but, as many others have pointed out already, there's suddenly orders of magnitude more stuff that we feel the burden to collect and archive and preserve. For the last couple of years I've been working on a project called Parallel Flickr, which is a meant to be an archive, a shadow copy, of all the photos I've uploaded to Flickr as well as those that I've favourited.

I tend to focus on Flickr because I am scarred by the years I worked there but it's best to think of "Flickr" only as a reference implementation. Replace it with Facebook or Twitter or any other community that people have rallied around and most of the issues are the same. Parallel Flickr is an attempt to work through a number of questions, in actual code, including:

  • What is the representative sample of something as big as Flickr, something so big you can't even see its edges? I happen to think there isn't one.
  • Personal archiving in general and, as Anne Wooton mentioned yesterday, trying to understand the roles and responsibilities that individuals have in preserving their online presences.
  • Creating a living breathing archive that is not just an inert bag of files.

I realize that not everyone agrees with me on this but we are fast approaching a time when the expectation for most people is that preservation and access and just as importantly some degree of functionality are the same thing. Or rather, that any one of those things without the others is a kind of shit. Consider the way most people confuse the Internet Archive and the Wayback Machine or the stunned disbelief when people find out there's no way to access the Library of Congress' Twitter archive.

But there's also a fourth thing which in many ways is really what this talk is about:

How do we preserve the interactions that a service like Flickr affords its users? Which is a kind of fancy talk for "relationships" which is itself fancy talk for "permissions". Flickr, and sites like it, succeed precisely because although they may actively encourage sharing-by-default they don't require it. That is something we need to be mindful of when we think about preservation.

Replace "permissions" with image rights or rights holders, if you're talking about written correspondence, and then multiply that by the scale of something like Flickr and take a deep breath. Because although social software is not specifically a "rights" question the quicksand is the same.

Parallel Flickr does not solve this problem but tries to chip away at it by using the Flickr API itself to validate users. Without getting in to the boring technical details think of it as like logging in to Parallel Flickr using the Flickr equivalent of Facebook Connect.

One of the benefits of this approach is that I can also use the API to retrieve my contacts and relationships from Flickr. That means if you visit Parallel Flickr and are logged out you only see public photos, but if you've logged in and we have a relationship you can see private or semi-private photos. Like I said, it's not a perfect solution and relies on Flickr being always-on but it's a start. It's certainly better than having to wipe those photos from the face of the Earth which is what would happen in the absence of some kind of privacy controls.

The reason I mention this is that as I've been doing this work I keep bumping up against the idea that maybe the future of archiving and preservation is going to involve a lot more running of services – things with moving pieces that need to be maintained and fine-tuned – than we've normally been used to.

For example, what would it mean for the Library of Congress to run Parallel Flickr or something like it? What would it mean for the Library not simply archive its own photos (which, I'll grant you, would be a bit of a circular argument) but to find all the other users who've ever interacted with their photos and – as an opt-in – offer to archive their photos as well. What if you extended that offer to all the contacts of those people as well?

It means that although the Library hasn't quite figured out how to archive all of Flickr it can start to capture the context, and the people, who have crossed paths with the Library's photos. It becomes an archive of all that which has intersected a point in history.

But there's an important twist in this: That for as long as Flickr's login service can be considered reliable and trustworthy the Library pledges to honour the permissions model for those photos. If a photo can only be view by "friends and family" on Flickr, it can only be view by those same people on the Library's site. But the moment that confidence around identity is called in to question — because some hypothetical misfortune befalls Flickr — any photos that aren't already public go dark and the so-called 70-year clock kicks in. But then, at the end of those 70 years all of those public resurface and are placed in to the public domain.

There's a explicit contract here which is that the Library promises to preserve the permissions model in the present in exchange for a person gifting that present to the future. My hunch is that people would be lined up around the block to participate.

Finally because Parallel Flickr goes out of its way to mirror both the ID and URL structure of Flickr itself if means that two separate instances can be easily merged in to a single larger instance. What that means is that two institutions can each tackle the problem of archiving something the size of Flickr in managable bites, separately and with an institutional focus, and merge their work as time and circumstances permit. It affords us a way to try and think through what it means to re-grow a network that big organically, and without having to contemplate swallowing the ocean.

But then sometime around 2008 the then-and-current head of the NSA asked, reasonably enough it should be added, "Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time?" and so now we have among many others like it the Utah Data Center located just across the field from the Thanksgiving Point Butterfly Garden and Golf Club in Bluffdale Utah. This is, we're told, where all the signals will live.

I mention this because it exposes a fairly uncomfortable new reality for those of us in the cultural heritage "business". That we are starting to share more in common with agencies like the NSA than anyone quite knows how to conceptualize.

Bluffdale, it is claimed, will not simply preserve and archive all of the Internet – tapped at the source – but provide the facilities to index, query and replay the damn thing at will. This might be bluster or just plain-old FUD. Maybe it's true or maybe it's an aspirational half-truth or maybe it's just an epic design fiction. We don't know.

Maybe its some combination of the three but no matter how you slice it it sounds a lot like the kinds of missions and mandates that we claim as so-called "memory institutions". Just without the buffer of time. Once the sort of information and documentation being collected at places like Bluffdale is divorced from any immediate consequence it is typically lauded as a rich trove of capital-H history.

Does this make Bluffdale the new National Mall?

It also raises another more interesting question: How do we archive Bluffdale itself? Or, if there is nothing to archive since it is the archive then maybe it's time to throw in the towel and just let NSA itself run the whole affair?

So, how did we get here? I think we're still trying to figure this out but I can point to a couple of likely suspects.

The first is simply that consumer-grade technology leap-frogged the cultural heritage sector's ability to fund-raise and hire third-party contractors. That the NSA or any organization (see also: Google) is able to operate at this scale is impressive but it's not like they've made a jet pack.

I don't want to belittle the technical chops that an organization like the NSA has at their disposal but what we're talking about in this situation is less a moon-shot advance in technology than it is being given the license and freedom to think this big.

Which brings us to the second suspect: A legal and political framework referred to as Unitary Executive Theory. Unitary Executive Theory is part of the long-running debate about the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branch and it's a position that basically says: The legislature is fine however the executive can still do whatever it wants.

Unitary Executive Theory is a position that was advanced by the Justice Department during the Reagan administration. And despite being largely trounced by the Supreme Court in the late 1980s many of those same lawyers found themselves working in the second Bush administration's Office of Legal Counsel in a post September 11th world.

The OLC writes briefs for the President offering opinions about what may or may not be legal and their advice, during the first decade of the 21st century, seems largely to have consisted of saying that "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas".

Around the same time the laws regulating the number of years before which presidential papers must be released to the public were changed. The number of years was increased from twelve to seventy.

The stated reason was to better foster an environment where the presidents advisors could feel confident giving "honest counsel" without having that blow back on their careers during their lifetime. I mention this only to point out that it's another example of the same dynamic around privacy that gets played out in social websites. Dick Cheney, when he was vice-president, is famously said to have eschewed using email at all precisely to leave no record. Remember Eco's horse-drawn carriage?

danah boyd, a researcher at Microsoft and best known for her work with youth culture and the Internet, wrote an essay in 2011 about privacy in a networked age where she argues that:

Privacy is a feeling that people have when they feel as though they have two important things: 1) control over their social situation; and 2) enough agency to assert control.

She goes on to say:

One of the reasons that I love working with teenagers is because, even though they have very limited agency, they still desperately crave it and try to find it in the cracks and folds of their lives.  What this means is that they don't take control for granted.  They assume that they have limited control over social situations because they're constantly having control taken away from them, most notably from their parents. Surveillance is a given in their worlds, something that more teens take for granted than not.  They're not thinking about corporations or governments, but parents and teachers and friends. They're worried about social privacy, not data privacy, because violations of social privacy are very real to them.

In Europe there are serious laws on the books to ensure people have a right to know what sort of data is being collected about them, at least by the private sector, but they do not have the right to be forgotten by those companies and services.

They lack agency to assert control.

I used to joke that Facebook had become the world's largest honeypot at least before the US government apparently decided to (re) nationalize the Internet. According to Wikipedia, a "honeypot" is:

[A] computer, data, or a network site that appears to be part of a network, but is actually isolated and monitored, and which seems to contain information or a resource of value to attackers.

Which makes it all sound a bit dire but let's be honest about something: Long removed from the pain of the now, and it may take 1 or 2 or 10 generations, our future selves will thank the NSA – or Facebook if we can ever figure out how to get stuff out of it – for all the stuff they've been collecting.

The NSA are betting on the future in, really, a pretty profoundly optimistic way.

If you hold to a particularly wooly-eyed and tree-hugging world-view, as I do, that says we should be finding ways to give voice to the oppressed or the otherwise simply ignored and to write a history whose tapestry is richer than only the voices of the victors then it is difficult to deny that the Internet, and all the technology that we've built to support it, has done a better job of furthering that ideal than anything that has come before it. Maybe something better will come along in the future but we are not in the business of preserving future promises.

Historically we have always equated the cost of inclusion with notability. The cost of being included in a physical book used to be the communal proof than someone or something was worth the trouble of producing that object. This just doesn't hold anymore in a world cheap and fast computing power.

Electricity remains the single point of failure in all of this. Really. But that is probably also an event horizon that has been permanently lost to the past. If the power goes out we'll have much bigger problems on our hands. And so, perhaps we can look at the oft-cited frictionless nature of communication — all the LOL cats and all the selfies — not as a tragedy of the commons but as an opportunity to serve as a kind of zone of safe-keeping. To create a more communal proof and to give the present enough weight and mass in the universe that the future might choose to orbit it with greater confidence. Or at least empathy.

To bet on the future, much as the NSA has begun to do, but actively and deliberately working to temper all the creepy bits.

So maybe this is what I think the challenge is going forward: To debate and advance a rhetoric, a measure against which we might be judged and challenged, that aims not to deny the future but simply to protect the present from itself. We are in, and have been living in for a while now, one of those "between two bus stops" moments and while I don't have a ready answer to the problem I think we need to understand that it's real and that it's not going to go away on its own.

Thank you.

Then I went to see James' drone shadow and somewhere in all of this the CIA managed to "acquire" Osama Bin Landen's assault rifle and put it on exhibition. I'm just saying...