In a previous entry, I discussed my experience uploading content to Flickr, reflecting in particular on the implications of making EXIF metadata publicly available alongside the photographic image. In the article “Urban Sensing: Out of the Woods” by Dana Cuff, Mark Hansen, and Jerry Kang (2008), the concerns I voiced (in a somewhat impressionistic manner) about the building of a web-based data commons are systematically discussed under the headings of “property” and “privacy”.
As regards property, the authors note that “Copyright law only protects creative expressions; it does not protect the underlying data” (p.30). In the case of Flickr, this raises an interesting problem: is a digital photograph uploaded to the web a “creative expression” or an informational record? Or, more fundamentally, is it “art” or “data”? I had mentioned that, in the context of my printed photobook, the photographs decidedly fell under the “art” rubric, in that they were geographically non-specific images aimed at connoting a personal state of mind — lacking captions (and thus, context), they were not “data” in the traditional sense (or, to use the article’s term, they are scientifically worthless “junk data”). But when uploaded to Flickr, with metadata specifying time and photographic settings, and geographic data supplied voluntarily by me when I mapped the photos, the photos, freely available and submerged in the sea of information, lose some of their “artistic” value as standalone works (for instance, the monetary value the work might have in a high-quality, limited-edition print); simultaneously, they acquire an informational value as “data,” that can be aggregated with other citizen-collected information for any number of uses. (And, if my camera possessed a GPS sensing component, the geographic data could be as precise as the temporal data). The article asserts that what one loses in individual property rights one might gain through “attribution,” which I interpret as the ability to advertise one’s talent as a citizen data-gatherer and feel rewarded by contributing to a larger project. And I agree that being part of a distributed data-gathering project (such as distributed documentary) can be very rewarding.
However, I think there is a curious paradox in today’s world, in that the need for academic credentials to “get ahead in life” has never been higher (look at the proliferation of MFA and MBA programs for proof), yet articles such as this one evangelize on behalf of the idea that “research” (scientific/artistic/political) is leaving the rigid central control of the Academy and becoming dependent on mass participation by all citizens, whether expert or not. Credentialization as a means to power vs. citizen participation as a means to knowledge: I have no clue what the implications of this are, except it doesn’t seem to be a sustainable tension. Thoughts?
The loss of privacy seems to be a simpler matter — constant self-surveillance, in which people voluntarily record and share information about their location and activities, is becoming the depressing norm. While the article argues that people will not contribute data to the commons if they perceive that “computer security is weak”, quite frankly I do not know if most people have any sense of how good or how bad “computer security” actually is. I, for one, do not. I did not even know that all my metadata was being gathered along with the coloured pixels in my photographs, and for all I know, maybe there IS a GPS sensor in my Nikon D80. But the web has enough conspiracy theories out there, and I have to get to class in the Rogers Communication Centre by 1 pm (there’s some self-surveillance for you!). Let’s just say that, as the article notes, privacy preferences ARE adaptive, what seems radically invasive today may seem commonplace tomorrow, and the cultural creep towards 1984 will go unnoticed by most.
One question I’d like to throw out there: the article discusses the importance of data visualization (and who doesn’t love a good multicoloured map or cartogram?). But do we run the risk of a “culture of visualization”, where data integrity is secondary?
Dana Cuff, Mark Hansen, and Jerry Kang. “Urban Sensing: Out of the Woods.” Communications of the ACM 51:3 (March 2008): 24-33.