The Digital Museum

Last Friday, I attended the presentation of a new book, “Deep Search“. They had a quite an interesting panel discussion with a few guests, including Mercedes Bunz, a German tech journalist writing for the British “Guardian”.

Later on, I stood together with another guest. Via Viktor Mayer-Schönberger’s “Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age” (there’s an interview with him by David Weinberger on Radio Berkman), we arrived at the question what digital goods – documents – ought to be preserved. And, more importantly, how to choose them.

For most of human history, the idea of preservation did not even exist. Things were either used or abandoned. What they were built from would become a natural resource for later generations. The Colosseum became a quarry, and vellums with the writings of Aristotle were recycled to contain Byzantine prayers.

At some point, our societies started chronicling human history by preserving artifacts and documents. They had – and still have today – designated places for them (museums) and experts (archivists, curators) who are in charge of deciding what is worth keeping – and what’s not.

Just as newspaper editors, curators are an elite. They are gate keepers, filtering a ubiquitous ressource (information here, artifacts there) for cultural value. This has been an important task, as space is limited, in newspapers as much as in museums.

But, as Clay Shirky writes in “Here comes everybody”, in the digital space the paradigm has shifted from “filter, then publish” to “publish, then filter”. Subsequently, the Digital Museum ought to preserve anything ever published on the Web – and let users sort through it using search functions and rank exhibits by popularity. In fact, Archive.org is doing just that.

But memory capacity isn’t a ubiquitous ressource. Even Archive.org needs to make decisions about what to preserve and what to let vanish. The obvious solution is to crowdsource the exhibits of the Digital Museum. Now the question is: Do we have to fear mob rule?

The answer was one of the most interesting parts of Friday’s panel discussion. As Mercedes Bunz remarked, there has been another paradigm shift. While the industrial age was marked by a trend towards homogenity, the networked information society shifts towards customization.

What does that mean for the Digital Museum? It does not have a main exhibition, but consists of a plethora of theme rooms, each catering a small subculture or niche interest.

This is not absolutely positive. If today we go to an exhibition, we will most likely be confronted with exhibits that we would not come across were they not paired with others that we are interested in. It’s the same with newspapers, or conferences.

In the Digital Museum, this ought not to happen. We, the visitors, with our questions (queries) decide exactly what we will see. In return, the museum will only show us what we already know about.

Imagine such a museum in the analog world. You fill out a questionary about your preferences upon entering and will be served accordingly. At Transmediale 10 yesterday science fiction novelist Bruce Sterling talked about atemporality. If you want to be an astronaut, he said, just dress up as one. You will look ridiculous, but by what standards?

The Digital Museum is bound to feature equally ridiculous situations. As I joked, a Nazi will only get to see Hitler memorabilia, a Communist Soviet agitprop. In the analog world, the question is: What happens if two Nazis and a Communist enter a room together? Will the majority rule, or will the exhibits split to equally represent visitors’ preferences?

In the Digital Museum of customization, people can enter together without noticing each other, neither their differences nor what they have in common. It is possible to fully withdraw from public discourse, one of the pillars that support our democracies.

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