At the crossroads of journalism and technology

Digital Institutions: The Rise of Neo-Cultural Repositories

by the J.Net Staff

On October 31, the J.Net staff met to discuss changing cultural institutions as part of a class assignment. We came to a somewhat startling conclusion. While many current cultural institutions do not seem to be taking advantage of the World Wide Web phenomenon, there are new digital institutions that are growing right before our eyes. Institutions that have much different properties, strengths, and weaknesses than traditional cultural institutions.

The Assignment

For this assignment, we had each member of the focus group pick a non-journalism oriented cultural institution, examine Web sites regarding the institution, and report back to the group. Here's how the final breakdown went:

The Results

For most of us, our first encounters with such web sites as The Library of Congress, The Pacific Film Archive, and various Hollywood studio sites was pretty disappointing. The sites were mainly of the promotional variety giving out information about the institution rather than allowing access to the institution. For example, Remzi had to do a fair amount of digging to find access to the Library of Congress' catalog system.

We noted an interesting effect that new technology had on Seung-Hoon's family. First, he and his wife actually met through an Internet chat! Second, digital technology was cheap enough that he could buy a digital camera to take tons of pictures of his new baby. Finally, his parents, still in Korea, didn't know anything about the Web until he told them pictures of their grandchild were going to be on the Web.

Then of course they gave him some pointed criticism on his multimedia review for this class.

Tom however noted that "Jazz" doesn't really have a physical institution. There's no National Jazz Museum (that we know of) or National Jazz Institute. On the Web however, there was a growing institution of jazz afficionados contributing to an ever expanding Web of information regarding the art form. This insight led us to the postulation of purely Web based culural repositories and the coining of the term Digital Institution. We contemplated trademarking the term before the folks at Wired got to it.

Independent Cinema: A Strange Journey

Brian started out hitting the search engines looking for independent cinema sites. He found absolutely nothing.

Then simply trying to find anything about cinema, he stumbled on a large body of cinema criticism on the Web. Some J.Net staffers noted that, "them that can do, them that can't criticize". However, whereas refereed journals, conferences, and respected popular magazines are the usual realm of critics, the Web provided a different venue. First, the critics could be widely distributed in time and space. Second, paper critique could easily be repurposed for the Web. In some sense, criticism  and examination is the first element of any institution that easily transfers to the Web.

Following some cross links from the criticism, Brian ventured into the Hollywood realm, specifically into film preservation. This was a more direct connection to Howard's mandate for this assignment. Clearly, film preservation is akin to preservation in standard museums. Here advancing technology was useful but no panacea. Films can be easily digitized today, but digitizing in a style and at a quality satisfactory to film preservationists is not easy.

This lead to the thought that the movie industry is one of the few "cultural institutions" that actually drives technology. The multimedia industry, primarily in the form of special effects producers and game producers, has essentially taken over SIGGRAPH, a formerly mild mannered computer science conference. Toy Story, the first full length animation completely done on computers, pushed the boundaries of animation technology.

Brian then began looking for information on special effects, and found a small subculture dedicated to doing special effects on computers. In particular, thanks to the advent of low cost 3D animation software and the falling price of computational power, there's a whole host of amateur animators out there.

Finally, moving on from the special effects realm, Brian hit his last stop, the LOW RES Film Festival. This is a festival that apparently is mostly organized and promoted on the Web, for filmmakers who make serious use of digital studio technology. Samples of the films are placed on the Web, and while the bandwidth to Brian's home was unacceptable, it was not a short leap to distributing these films completely over the net.

If one combines all of these elements, criticism, preservation, and exposition, one has a living growing cultural repository on the Web.

And as a final note, Brian did finally find independent cinema on the Web. A small band of do it yourself, low/no budget film makers, was putting together a film festival. Their primary means of publicizing the events was apparently the Web site. The site contained links to all of the organizations involved, information about the festival, and details on how to produce a film with no budget.

Of course in true Web fashion, the Volcano Film Festival is physically located in London.

What is a Digital Institution?

While a more in-depth study is definitely necessary, there were some properties of the digital institution that we were able to ferret out.

We however made no value judgements on whether digital institutions were any better or worse than current cultural repositories. They are not even surrogate experiences for our standard notions of cultural repositories.

For example, we noted that the Web is driving people to be constantly dissatified with the present. "When's the next beta come out?" "Wait until next month, it'll be cheaper". "Upgrade today!". "Why doesn't their site have Foo (tm)?" We concluded that a more enlightened Buddhist approach might serve to diminish ridiculous expectations about cultural repositories on the Web.

We also noted that there's really no one out there preserving parts of these new digital institutions. In some sense though, that's the entire point of the Web, to make the latest and greatest version of something available. We wondered what happens to movie promotional sites a year after the movie has been released.

We noted that technology could be a big boon to current cultural institutions. If the Library of Congress web site can reduce the number of stupid phone calls asking about hours, location, document availability, etc. maybe one more person can be put on book preservation.

Yet at the same time, the reverence of being in the cultural repository is lost. Visiting the British Royal Museum through your Web browser just does not impart the same sense of majesty as being in the time honored halls themselves.

Do What You Do Best

So how do we reconcile the traditional cultural repository with the digital institution? It seems to us that while having classic cultural repositories join the Web is a good thing, they might be better off allocating most of their resources to their current physical mission. Digital institutions can serve as the laboratory in the fast changing, financially expensive realm of networked information. Once more practice and experience in the digital realm has been compiled then it might make sense for our current repositories to make a concerted to move on-line.