Metaphors and Visions

If you like big metaphors and glowing visions of our technological future, I recommend that you read this article on Web 2.0. Even if you don’t enjoy that sort of thing, I still think this is a fine and instructive read – it provides a solid idea of how a number of fairly recent technologies and services such as virtual clipping, blogs and social bookmarking create a completely new information ecology. In moving from Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, the author asserts, each piece of information can be “analyzed, repackaged, digested, and passed on down to the next link in the chain.” Good-bye isolated bits of information, welcome to the intricate fabric of re-woven threads of ideas and content.

I believe that this discussion has direct bearing on the collaboration between museums, libraries and archives. All cultural heritage institutions hold fascinating strands of information, but no matter how great each institution’s individual collection, it only unfolds its fullest meaning-generating potential once it gets inter-woven with other strands of content from other peer institutions. But the ultimate aggregation of all cultural heritage content is only the beginning of the Web 2.0 journey – what happens if this massive amount of content now meets up with other existing or emerging data pools?

Some pie-in-the-sky scenarios: What if you could see for each artefact which university class the item was taught in and how many students chose to write papers on it? What if you could automatically reconstruct from auction house and dealer records when and where the artefact was sold, and for what price? (I’m getting side-tracked now, but what if you could track this data against the valuation of the stock market?) What if you could automatically reconstruct from museum exhibition records when, where and for how long a piece has been on display, and find the exhibition catalog at a library to boot? With all of these data-points, a whole new history of the appreciation, status and value of a particular piece of artwork over time could be written.

Maybe these scenarios aren’t particularly likely, and their merit for teaching and learning could be debated as well. However, the point I’m trying to make is that we now have the technology for truly mind-boggling connections between pools of data – it’s time for us as a community to envision where we’d like to go with these capabilities.