Sunday, May 06, 2007

Everything was beautiful, and nothing hurt.

Epicenter - Wired Blogs

An interview of Cory Doctorow by David Weinberger. Fascinating stuff about metadata, and the differences between implicit and explicit data, along with the political-cultural constructs in play around classification systems.

I wonder, sometimes, about going off and getting a librarianship or curatorial qualification. I am most certainly one of those people who likes sorting - systematising, tidying, classifying and arranging is something I find incredibly soothing. I have a feeling it's incredily hardwired in to me; back in my wild art student days there was a wonderful incident with some hallucinogens and waking up to discover my room ordered to the Nth degree - even my cupboard shelf contents were tidied, rectinlinearly stacked in size order. Others get messy on drugs, I get tidy. But I digress.

I've written bits and bobs about tax- and folks- onomies before here; I don't have the energy for a retread this evening; frankly, reading the transcript of the interview will tell you everything I've said and more, with greater clarity and intellectual rigour. It's worth reading or listening to.

One interesting point made is about flickr, and the huge mass of CC-licensed photos available on the web:-

If you're a stock photographer trying to sell photos of Capri, even if it can be found, you're probably screwed at Flickr because there's 100, 000 of them there available for free--unlicensed, actually, Creative Commons licensed--yours is going to have to be pretty darn good for somebody to actually shell out money for it.

The interview goes on to talk about copyright, and elision of cultural and commercial constraints in copyright law. The ususal.

But... what does it really mean that there's so much available for free, now? Is the bespoke the final recourse of arts, now? If everyone can micro-produce and micro-sell, what happens to the 'great work' - does it become more valuable, have more of an aura?

In a fully described world, where the overlay of discussion and culture is captured in searchable, semi-machine readable electronic forms, where the map and the territory are completely blurred... what does a creative person do? When there can be no 'underground', no hidden pockets of creative collaboration left to diversify in obscurity, away from the wider culture, do we end up with ... less creative speciation? Or radical, precambrian explosions of diversity?

Flickr is always a good example; it made me want to photograph more, initially, but now makes me not want to photograph at all, because anything I capture will be so like so many other pictures. Interestingness is rarely that; it's more frequently inoffensively pretty and technically pristine; a kind of mass idea of what a good photograph might be, smoothed out by the gentle erosion of traffic flow across the site. It feels a bit like Clement Greenberg's idea of kitsch; it seems to point out that originality is nearly impossible to achieve.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this thought. I think I'm interested to understand what it means to be trying to create something unique in a world where everything-there-is is instantly available and addressable, and any new creation is instantly contextualised by being indexed as 'a bit like this, and this other thing, and maybe 30% similarity to this other thing here'. What gets made? The things that spring to mind are the great renaissance works, painted for super-rich patrons, and elaborately personally codified; the language of art history becoming more obscure and arcane, and personalised to the patron. Commissioning something, collaborating, and encoding undisclosed ideas into the work becomes a way of opposing the same-ness of originality. Or does creativity become private again; something jealously held away from the systematizing gaze of the web? Or do objects become valuable purely because of personal significances - does taste die?

How do we preserve surprise, and grit, and significance? And are these valuable things, or am I pining for mirages?


Ian Betteridge said...

It's a very good point by Cory, but I think misses out on one of the reasons why professionals still use image libraries rather than FLickr: Flickr search is too broad to work unless you have mucho time.

When I am looking for a stock image, I'm usually looking for something very specific: I want a picture of a woman using a mobile phone in an office but not wearing a business suit, say. With Getty et al, I can specify that - and also the format of the picture (portrait of landscape), which is very important.

Flickr's searching doesn't come anywhere near that, plus there's the problem of mis-tagging, which will only get worse. And, with no editing of what's submitted, the number of pictures in each tag - and thus the time it takes to search through them - becomes worse and worse. This makes Flickr less and less usable for stock photographer: even if it's free, if it takes me an hour to find what I want it's not worth it.

Paul Mison said...

I suspect it's taken as (or from?) stock photography, but there is one good (passable?) result in a search of CC photos for woman office phone -suit.

I agree that a search on orientation would be nice, and that Getty won't have the range, but perhaps that doesn't matter to someone who wants a photo cheaply and and doesn't have a subscription to (or the knowledge of how to navigate) a more commercial stock library.

Ed said...

Cory has also got a very depressed look at this - why would anyone try to do anything creative, as there are masses of free stuff out there - we create because we are expressing ourselves, and because, due to our innate self-inflatedness, believe our image is better than others - for whatever reason.

Darren said...

I think Cory's point is about professional vs purely creative pursuits.

The big issue with tagging is that it relies on too much human intervention and one must accept that some things - even exceptional things - slip through the cracks.

kim said...

Tagging relies on human intervention, yes - but so do most other forms of metadata addition to content. Short of simple intrinsic metadata (machine generated), anything that refers to meaning or context of an image *must* be added by human effort. Even meaningful filenames are human-added.

They're just not as obviously human added, because they tend to happen behind the walls of big institutions, or within CMS systems. I bet Getty employs an ARMY of metadata monkeys. And I say this as someone who has worked with the BBC's content management system, and metadata schemas.

So I'm not sure I buy your point, Darren.

Tom Dolan said...

So is the difference between a professional and an amateur whether they can be arsed to put the metadata on? :-)

I had an interesting take on this recently, when working with a very talented designer who was around 25. It was only after a few weeks I discovered that all of his assets came from that well known free resource library "google images". Okay, so there was a bit of dressing on top so in general he could have got away with 'derivative work' on a tiny site, but not on something as hugely visible as our project.

His view was that image libraries were too expensive and too complicated to clear, so that precision in searchability was useless. Better to spend an extra hour kicking around on google and slapping on a few filters than spend any hard cash.

I'll leave you to imagine the Stern Conversations that followed.

It bore some similarity to the one about "for the amount I'm paying you per day, using the instability of your cracked design software as an excuse for missing deadlines isn't acceptable".

Young people today eh?