Briefly Noted: Creative Commons Choices; Radical Transparency; Presidential Sex

Creative Commons logo Creative Commons has released a statistical analysis of the licensing choices of Flickr users. My summary: most people are happy to provide open access, but they don’t want you messing with their stuff. Some commentators lament the fact that so few Flickr users allow derivative works or commercial use of their materials. But for me the important thing about Creative Commons and its use on sites like Flickr is not the particular licenses people choose, but that they choose open licenses—under terms that are clearly explained and easily understood—at all. It is the clarity that Creative Commons licensing brings and the spur to open access this allows that’s important to education, scholarship, and cultural heritage.

This has made the rounds, but for those of you who haven’t seen it, Indianapolis Museum of Art Director Maxwell Anderson’s recent lecture, Through the Looking Glass: Museums and Internet-Based Transparency is an important statement of the value of openness. Not simply a good talk, IMA is walking the walk.

Our good friend Rob MacDougall points to painter Justine Lai’s series picturing herself having sex with past U.S. presidents. Check your modesty before clicking the link.

Briefly Noted: Surviving the Downturn; Help with Creative Commons; Yahoo Pipes

The American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) provides cultural heritage professionals with some relevant information on surviving the economic downturn.

JISC provides advice on choosing (or not choosing) a Creative Commons license.

Missed it at the launch? Didn’t see the point? Don’t know where to start? Ars Technica has a nice reintroduction and tutorial for Yahoo Pipes, a visual web content mashup editor. Here’s an example of the kind of thing you can do very easily (20 minutes in this case) with Pipes: an aggregated feed of CHNMers’ tweets displayed on a Dipity timeline.

Briefly Noted: Universal Museum APIs; Raw Data Now!; Publish or Perish

Mia Ridge, Lead Web Developer at the Science Museum, London (where I’m a research fellow, incidentally) points to Museums and the machine-processable web, a new wiki “for sharing, discussing, arguing over and hopefully coming to some common agreements on APIs and data schemas for museum collections.”

Following closely on that, Tim Berners-Lee calls for “Raw Data Now!” at the TED Conference, suggesting that linked raw data may be poised to displace more finished works (journal articles, websites) as the main unit of scientific production. Interesting, provocative parallels to the digital humanities.

And not entirely unrelated, Mark Bauerlein considers the problems of “publish or perish” in Professors on the Production Line, Students on Their Own [.pdf]. Asking “Do any major works or authors lack editors, interpreters, theorists, reviewers, and teachers?” Bauerlein answers “the ‘coverage’ project is complete” and suggests departments turn back to teaching. “We need honest and open public acknowledgment that the scholarly enterprise has lost its rationale,” he concludes, “that central parts of the humanities are in real trouble, and that the surest way to restoration lies in a renewed commitment to the undergraduate student.” I can’t say I always agree with Bauerlein (see, for example, but he’s invariably worth reading.

Thinking the Unthinkable

Clay Shirky’s widely circulated post, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, has got me thinking about the “unthinkable” in humanities scholarship. According to Shirky, in the world of print journalism, the unthinkable was the realization that newspapers would not be able to transfer their scarcity-of-information-based business model to the internet. It was publishers’ inability to imagine a business model for a world in which information is easily distributed that led to the crisis in which newspapers find themselves today. He writes,

The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.) Hardware and software vendors would not regard copyright holders as allies, nor would they regard customers as enemies. DRM’s requirement that the attacker be allowed to decode the content would be an insuperable flaw. And, per Thompson, suing people who love something so much they want to share it would piss them off.

In our world, easy parallels to newspaper publishers can be made, for instance, with journal publishers or the purveyors of subscription research databases (indeed the three are often one and the same). I’m sure you can point to lots of others, and I’d be very happy to hear them in comments. But what interests me most in Shirky’s piece are his ideas about how the advent of the unthinkable divides a community of practitioners. These comments hit a little closer to home. Shirky writes,

Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

Again, we probably pretty easily can point to both “realists” (who get it) and “fabulists” (who don’t or won’t) in academic publishing. But the analogy extends deeper than that. There are strong and uncomfortable parallels within our own disciplines.

The question is this: Just who are the pragmatists and who are the radicals in our departments? Maybe those of us who spend our time taking digital technologies seriously aren’t radical at all. Maybe those of us in digital humanities centers (read: “Innovation Departments”) are simply realists, while our more traditional colleagues are fabulists, faithfully clinging to ways of doing things that are already past. Listening to some colleagues talk about the dangers of Wikipedia, for instance, or the primacy of university-press-published, single-authored monographs, or problems of authority in the social tagging of collections, it certainly sometimes feels that way. Conversely what we do in digital humanities surely feels pragmatic, both day-to-day and in our broader focus on method.

Obviously we can’t and shouldn’t divide scholars so neatly into two camps. Nor do I think we should so casually dismiss traditional scholarship any more than we should uncritically celebrate the digital. Yet it’s worth thinking for a minute of ourselves as realists rather than revolutionaries. If nothing else, it may keep us focused on the work at hand.

Briefly Noted: FOSS Culture; Digital Humanities Calendar; Guardian API; WWW Turns 20

GNOME Foundation executive director Stormy Peters has some advice on bridging the gap between institutional and open source cultures. Useful reading for digital humanities centers and cultural heritage institutions looking to participate in open source software development.

Amanda French has posted a much-needed open calendar of upcoming events in Digital Humanities, Archives, Libraries, and Museums.

The Guardian newspaper unveils an open API to more than 1,000,000 articles written since 1999.

20 years ago today: Tim Berners-Lee produced his first written description of the Web.

Briefly Noted for March 9, 2009

This year CHNM and the American Historical Association will be pleased to award the first Rosenzweig Fellowship for Innovation in Digital History in memory of our late friend and inspiration, Roy Rosenzweig.

The American Association for State and Local History has launched a traveling exhibition directory for museums and other organizations looking to find and publicize traveling exhibitions.

Smithsonian Director of Web and New Media Strategy, Mike Edson, has posted his spot-on treatment of lingering concerns over social media and web technology among collections professionals and administrators. The presentation originally appeared at the recent WebWise conference in Washington, DC.


I came across this old quote last night in finishing up David Post’s In Search of Jefferson’s Moose: Notes on the State of Cyberspace. It seems a fair approximation of how things work (should work?) in the new digital humanities:

“We reject: kings, presidents and voting. We believe in: rough consensus and running code.”

David Clark, “A Cloudy Crystal Ball: Visions of the Future.” Internet Engineering Task Force, July 1992. [PDF].