Looking outwards: making culture cloud connections

Looking around myself on  train recently, about one in three people were doing something digital. They were blasting eardrums with iPods, checking stock prices, watching videos, playing online role-playing games. Someone was even looking at a culture website!

Digital Britain is all around us, right now. We already sit within a real-time web of data. We expect our interactions and cultural output to be geared together and to make new meanings and connections as we go.

As producers and creatives our best channel to audiences in this cloud of online culture comes through managing our core information. That perhaps sounds boring and blank but actually it just means, in the first instance, having simple policies in the museum or gallery to ensure core name and location info about our venue is consistently described then indexed correctly in Google.

That’s right. In the midst of all the perplexing and ever-changing technology we use today, the first step to cultural discovery online is just to use words intelligently to describe your stuff. When you master that, you can allow participatory pathways into collections, exhibitions and more.

If you do it right, someone else may want to share your content or info, or re-use it in another form.  When this happens, your data takes on new value; something we might call knowledge or information equity.  Equity? Does information have value? You bet.  Mobile computers – like iPhones or Android phones – are taking over as the first point of digital contact for many people these days, and they need data.

In his fascinating recent pamphlet about Cloud Culture, written for the British Council, Charles Leadbeater starts to explore the meanings, politics and moral challenges of putting this culture in the digital cloud.

To my eyes, Leadbeater sees too much danger and negativity in these geared and connected data spaces; it’s a chance for those who already watch us too much to watch us even more, he warns.  In reality, we’re already rigidly connected to countless databases that don’t operate in any sinister way at all.  When we book an airline ticket or tax our car we use the cloud of data.  It’s been making connections for us for the last ten years at least.

Forget the more pervasive big brother, the real-time web brings major gains for us as cultural producers: we can now develop data-led ways to put art into a relational landscape where it can begin to be judged and re-contextualised in a wider social space.

We can use real-time web info to market and promote arts and culture in regions where art and tourism are part of the regeneration agenda.  We can offer community arts projects online access and digital partnering opportunities with other groups situated more remotely.  We can tag items in collections so that stories can be woven between objects, places, eras and languages.

If we’re up to the challenge, we could make the new web work for us, not against us, as Leadbeater seems to imply it might.  Cloud culture may allow new kinds of creativity and digital innovation.  Is it possible for us to develop a new, more culturally-inspired or connected YouTube or Flickr? Perhaps; but let’s not forget sites like those morphed out of the very close relationship between academia and Silicon Valley in the States:  I’d question whether we have developed such fertile collaborations here yet.

Sergey Page and Larry Brin developed an idea for a search engine with a difference while at Stanford University, and they got Silicon Valley to invest in Google. The proximity of high-end tech companies, the culture space and universities in the US drive a lot of innovation in our web today.

Arts Council England’s ‘Achieving Great Art for Everyone’ consultation proposes the arts drive our creative industries; I’m assuming this phrase refers to conventional culture industries.  In the US, the creative industries are very closely aligned to new media and tech labs. There’s massive convergence between funders, galleries and tech companies.

TechSoup is a prominent stateside funding agency that blurs boundaries between sectors, funding types and agendas. In the UK, the only dedicated charity or trust that funds digital is the Nominet Trust. Seen side-by-side with Nominet recently at the National Digital Inclusion conference [NDI10] in London, TechSoup shone out as a beacon of developmental excellence, with partnerships linking the commercial web developer, culture venues and social development agencies.

Now shine the torch around us on this side of the Atlantic.  How many arts projects unite objectives/outcomes/ideologies from multiple sectors? Technologies like the real-time web, accessed by easy-to-use mobile platforms like the iPhone, give us a fascinating opportunity to converge the interests and agendas of many from within and outside of the culture sector.

To make good developmental connections now, I think we should closely look at the way ‘Stateside agencies like TechSoup have woven strong connections between commercial developers, culture agencies, universities and mass media organisations.  At a recent Arts Council-sector gathering I was struck by the almost total absence of professional experience from outside the public culture sector.

I think we need to look outwards more.  It’d be great to have a tech director at a National museum who comes from a retail, manufacturing or FMCG digital environment; but that will take a leap of imagination from current museum trustees.  No time like the present though!

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About Jon Pratty

Human - for now
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