Careful Documentation

This (thank you Cristina) is a great mini-documentary about the impact of documentation as used in the Reggio Emilia schools and with the Making Learning Visible project

Documentation: Transforming Our Perspective from Melissa Rivard on Vimeo.

Intuitively, I am wholeheartedly behind this sort of approach. Instinctively, too, I worry about the biases that come with collecting. A while ago, I was interested in collecting and the biases, problems and difficulties with that. Documentation is clearly prone to that.

To summarise, though it’s a little jarring as a quote, you can use the wonderful Culture of Collecting:

“… if the cultural criterion of the desirable excludes anything tainted by ‘shit’, if the definition of a collectible rests on an implied ritual of cleansing … and if we never touch anything that is not already in a sense ‘our own’, then all conventional collecting can really offer is kitsch.”

Often the display work you see published online, or the student portfolios is similarly kitsch. Student work can be work that is “cleansed” by teachers, so to speak. Displays, while often remarkably talented, are also often remarkably kitsch.

Where the documentary scores for me is that those involved clearly see who “owns” the documentation to be an issue. For older students, what is helpful is that they become the protagonist in their own documentation. That, for me, is the exciting part. And that is what stops it being kitsch.

Letters of Note, Darwin & The Tendency to Generalize

On the wonderful Letters of Note blog, this caught my fancy.  It is an excerpt from a letter from Charles Darwin.  It was not approach to collecting and generalisation especially.  How many smatterers and wandering collectors are there online who make the loose speculations Mr D abhors?  Well, one here …

I must be allowed to put my own interpretation on what you say of “not being a good arranger of extended views”  which is, that you do not indulge in the loose speculations so easily started by every smatterer & wandering collector. I look at a strong tendency to generalize as an entire evil.

[via Kottke]

Letters of Note, Darwin & The Tendency to Generalize

On the wonderful Letters of Note blog, this caught my fancy.  It is an excerpt from a letter from Charles Darwin.  It was not approach to collecting and generalisation especially.  How many smatterers and wandering collectors are there online who make the loose speculations Mr D abhors?  Well, one here …

I must be allowed to put my own interpretation on what you say of “not being a good arranger of extended views”  which is, that you do not indulge in the loose speculations so easily started by every smatterer & wandering collector. I look at a strong tendency to generalize as an entire evil.

[via Kottke]

The “New” Curators

Great post here (by someone who used to be a real curator):

“real curators don’t just leave a record. They assiduously build their collections, so that each new entry is made in full knowledge of its predecessors and with a deeply thoughtful anticipation for what comes next. These collections vibrate like a spider’s web with each new entry.

Real curators think with their collections. The collections are intelligence, memory, conceptual architecture made manifest. I love the idea that someone would take up this function in the digital world. But that’s not what I see the new “curators” doing. This richer, more authentic, more sincere rendering of the term could accomplish something astonishing. It would help sort and capture contemporary culture with some feeling for context, relative location, relative weight, what goes with what. This is the sort of thing that Pepys accomplished, unwittingly, with his diary. This notion of the curator has yet to find its champion. I don’t think we quite yet have a Pepys of the present day.”

Made me think of The Culture of Collecting again, and the problem with collecting things that aren’t “objects” as such: how do you easily spot what’s missing from your collection of thoughts? In other words, how can you usefully use all these wonderful online tools to avoid thinking kitsch thoughts or blandly repeating yourself?

Postcards from the Edge

I liked this [via an old post from Foe Romeo]. It comes from a New Statesman review by James Fenton (subscription needed) of Tom Philips’s postcard exhibition “We Are the People”.

The individual object is of no great worth on its own. It is only through accumulation, only by becoming one of a category, that it has any great chance of engaging our interest.

Fenton also decides that

There are two kinds of collecting: the selective and the accumulative. In the first, the collector seeks to assemble only the best examples of a class of object (paintings, sculptures, porcelain). The collection improves as its quality, but not its quantity, increases. With this method, sacrifices may continually be made, as objects of lesser worth are sold to acquire more desirable items. The number of entries in the inventory may remain static over the years, but the collection is seen to advance through substitution, or through a process of “trading up”.

…In the second, accumulative type of collection, the significance of the individual object is seen to grow through its keeping company with such a large number of items of a similar kind: one Gabon stamp may be neither here nor there, but 50 Gabon stamps act as a spur to the acquisition of 50 more. And as the ceiling is reached, as all the Gabon stamps seem to have been tracked down, a kind of restlessness sets in – Cameroon suddenly becomes interesting and desirable from the collector’s point of view. Soon it is no longer a matter of forming a collection. Multiple classes of object have begun to occupy the collector’s attention…

Made me think of Post Secret, a collection of cards with anonymous secrets written on them. It’s compelling reading, but after a while you begin to wonder whether anyone you talk to is “normal”. As a test, I took a card at random, and it looked like this.

And yes, on it’s own, without knowing that it’s part of a collection of similar cards, it’s just a little bit odd. But when you begin to look at all of them (a type 2 collection where categories emerge) then you do begin to see some trends, albeit fuzzy ones, and with those fuzzy trends, categories. Here are a few from a quick skim:

Religion:
I tell people I’m an atheist, Miss feeling close to God, I deleted the recording of the Pope’s funeral for an episode of Survivor

Marriage and love gone wrong:

I wished on a dandelion for my husband to die, I considered Statutory Rape charges so he’d regret breaking my heart, I wanted the disease to be my punishment

Shit and piss:
I take extreme measures to poop in solitude, I want to crap on my Mum’s white rug, I only pick up dog turds when people are watching

Individuals in the Crowd: Obscure T-shirts to find best friend, Enigmatic Ceramic Blessings for stranger to find, I make everyone believe I like to be different

Anyway, there are certainly more ways of slicing and dicing them, but I stopped because I found it all a bit bleak quite quickly. What I found interesting was that multiple classes of object had begun to occupy my attention, just as with the type 2 collection. And this case with the postcards is another case of the emergence of classifications, however brittle. Read someone’s blog for a while and fairly quickly you being to spot types of post, often quite different from their writers’ given categories. Same with flickr. Same with del.icio.us.

But what about type 1 collections, where the number of items collected remains static but you trade up? The obvious arena for this in social software-ish terms is either the wiki (wikipedia “trades up” sentences on a page until it gets a valuable collection of words about a topic) or the aggregator, though trading up may well be the wrong term. (If you’re just tracking what your friends trading up is probably not something you should admit to/do – your choice – but me I don’t like it) But what would it be like, and how would it affect you be allowed a maximum of, say, 200 posts? Maybe it would be a good thing?

And I suppose what I’m really curious about is whether Type 1 collections are a natural follow on from Type 2 collections. You tag/collect/post/whatever until classifications emerge (for you or your group) and when you focus on something you think is valuable in there and then you can start trading up.

Hmm. Not sure about the trading up, it’s sticking in my throat a bit …

Flame Wars vs Fluff Wars

Just over a month ago, Clay Shirky wrote a piece called “Group as User: Flaming and the Design of Social Software“. And it’s been given plaudits galore. But – ahem, polite cough – I think it’s a) wrong, and b) steering into very dangerous territory. The focus on group and the eradication of flame wars is a surefire way to kitsch thinking and fluff wars.

Clay’s Argument
Hopefully, this doesn’t oversimplify things, but Clay’s argument seems to run as follows:

  • “Much of the current literature and practice of software design … targets the individual user, functioning in isolation.”
  • This assumes the user treats computer is a box “while our actual behavior is closer to computer-as-door, treating the device as an entrance to a social space.”.
  • Users’ behaviours in these social spaces, though, are complex, more so than “human/computer interaction, and that unpredictability defeats classic user-centric design”. Social roles (such as process Nazi or peacemaker) and social actions (such as social climbing or arguing) highlight the design gap.
  • A way to bridge this design gap is to accept that “the user of a piece of social software is not just a collection of individuals, but a group”

Then we have a phase-shift, and the focus turns to flaming.
Continue reading Flame Wars vs Fluff Wars

The Culture of Collecting

I’ve just started reading “The Cultures of Collecting” (ed. Elsner & Cardinal), and it looks to be a corker.

The science of classification is, in Stephen Jay Gould’s words, ‘truly the mirror of our thoughts, its changes through time [are] the best guide to the history of human perceptions’. And if classification is the mirror of collective humanity’s thoughts and perceptions, then collecting is its material embodiment. Collecting is classification lived, experienced in three dimensions. The history of collecting is this the narrative of how human beings have striven to accommodate, to appropriate and to extend the taxonomies and systems of knowledge they have inherited …

Then a little bit later introduction the notion of rulers and leaders “collecting” individuals is talked about, and how they classify castes, heretics and the like. What struck me was the role of the individual in all this.

Continue reading The Culture of Collecting

The Commodity Fetishism of Thought (or Me! Me! I want that idea!)

I’m beginning to get interested in museums, collections, exhibitions and the like as a metaphor for blogging. A sensible place to start seemed to be the beginning of museums, and so I did reading around the subject and came across the wonderfully named Antoine Chrysethome Quatremere de Quincy (1755 – 1849). Quatremere was the last of the “armchair archaeologists”. He lived at a time when museums and collections were beginning to change radically the way we viewed art, and he abhorred what they were doing. For him, work placed in a museum is

“lifted from its original function, displaced from its birthplace, and rendered foreign to the circumstances that gave it significance”

Considerations morales sur la destination des ouvrages de l’art (1815)

Quatremere’s Olympian Jupiter

Museums stripped art of its context. So for instance when, in 1796, the little genius Napoleon decided it would be a good idea to relocate the artworks of Rome to Paris, Quatrem�re was furious

“The true museum of Rome consists … of statues, colossi, temples, obelisks, triumphal columns, baths, circuses, amphitheatres, arches of triumph, tombs, stucco decoration, frescoes, bas-reliefs, inscriptions, fragments of ornaments, building materials, furniture, utensils, etc., etc.; but it is composed no less of places, sites, mountains, quarries, ancient roads, the particular placement of ruined towns, geographical relationships, the mutual relations among all these objects, memories, local traditions, still prevailing customs, the parallels and comparisons that can only be made in this very place.”

Lettres sur l’enl�vement des ouvrages de l’art antique � Ath�nes et � Rome. (1815)

Initially, I found myself liking Quatremere. The divorcing from context angst was something I (up to a point) shared. More to the point, there is much about collecting and museums that smacks of commodity fetishism, which I abhor (although, erm, I do love my new laptop … ).

But here’s the rub. What else am I doing quoting Quatrem�re but “fetishising” his thoughts?

In fact, what is anyone doing when they post to their blog quoting someone else’s comments but acting like Napoleon?

Going to have a cup of very rare PG Tips now, and ponder. I suspect I’m getting my knickers in a twist – after all there are differences between the little genius and me, which is comforting, but …