Artificial history

Earlier this week I was at the Digital Nations 2030 conference in Auckland. There was lots of talk about the inevitability of artificial intelligence (AI), which got me thinking about how it relates to history as a subject. Here are a few bald statements and equally bald (and unanswered) questions about it.

Vincent O’Malley used and may have coined the term at a talk last year ‘Fake history’ when questioned by someone in the audience about the New Zealand Wars.

We know from fake news that the Right knows how to mobilise online, much better than the Left, and can flood social media feeds to the detriment of society.

Here in New Zealand, Hobson’s Pledge is a perfect combination of the two, flooding both mainstream and social media with interpretations of colonial and Treaty history that are both wrong and harmful.

Artificial intelligence, like it or not, is a thing. It’s happening (search results, image recognition, social media algorithms, Amazon suggestions are a few examples that most will recognise) and will only become more central to our lives (medical imaging and diagnosis, legal interpretation, internet of things).

As with many new technologies, the cultural sector will probably be slow to adopt it. Equally, the technology industry will probably be slow to see the potential of the cultural sector for AI applications.

How will the documentary heritage sector respond to this challenge? In a future where people will ask increasingly complex questions of their devices, what responses will they receive to questions like “when was New Zealand settled?”, “what caused the New Zealand Wars?”, “why did Māori sign the Treaty of Waitangi?”?

They’re significant and contested questions, central to how New Zealanders understand their country and place in it. But who will be providing the answers? And if (as I hope) it’s the history community and documentary heritage sector, what systems do we need to start thinking about now to meet it sooner rather than later?

Reading list, 18 February 2018

Why the not-for-profit cultural sector needs tailor-made copyright safe harbours Graeme Austin and Emily Hudson present the case for a safe harbour copyright exclusion for the cultural sector, but fails to cover why this is needed or provide any case studies to demonstrate what organisations can, can’t and could do under the current or a future copyright regime. Would be useful to see this proposal looked at more closely and it could draw on some of the examples raised by Andrea Wallace in her 2017 NDF Keynote.

Government by numbers: how data is damaging our public services Q&A with Jerry Muller on his new book, The Tyranny of Metrics, on the fascination and poor results of measuring productivity in the public sector.

Finally, Pia Andrews (née Waugh) paints an optimistic vision of a digitally enabled future ahead of an event called “Optimistic Futures” being held in Wellington this week: An Optimistic Future.

Collective effort: we’re all collectors

At some point I’m going to have to stop referencing the talk I gave at NDF last year (hence no link this time round), but it canvassed a lot of the issues we’re facing at work as publishers of an online encyclopedia.

One of those was about archiving and the need to maintain a historical record of what the government published at a particular moment in time. Anyone involved in history knows that how we think about the past changes, and keeping a record of how our thinking changes is an important part of reviewing our past. (It becomes a bit circular, but how we thought about history 10 or 20 years ago tells us a lot about our society at those times.)

In my talk I suggested Te Ara as a place where legacy cultural or heritage content could be deposited to ensure it was available in future. That way, it could remain alive in a living and active website. The alternative of course is to deposit material in a traditional collecting institution – an archive, a library or a museum – and in fact Te Ara itself could be deposited too. But that puts a lot of expectation and strain on those institutions to provide for the long-term management of material/assets/archives that are created outside of their control.

At a system level, government can’t keep creating new material and expect collecting institutions to manage it long-term without at least bringing them into the conversation when we start creating it. To address that we either need to ensure collecting institutions are funded and resourced to handle the material or look at ways that we can collectively manage it.

I was reminded of this during a meeting with staff from the National Library last week in relation to audio-visual interviews we’re creating as part Te Tai Treaty Settlement Stories. We’re creating terabytes of AV data, some of which we’ll publish, but all of which is valuable to future historians and researchers. (For example, lengthy interviews with people like Hirini Mead, Tipene O’Regan, Doug Graham, Jim Bolger  and many more on the treaty settlement process and specific iwi settlements.) Where should all those terabytes, and the terabytes lots of other organisations are creating, live in the long-term to ensure they’re available for future users?

A lot of what we’re creating is related to iwi – their stories and their speakers – and this is where National Library have had some interesting discussions with iwi about options for ownership and management of iwi-related content. I don’t know the details and it’s probably very early days, but it opens up some interesting options for considering how we might collectively manage documentary heritage.

That might include a distributed network of collections that are held and managed by the organisations that either create content (eg, government departments) or that claim intellectual ownership or kaitiaki over collection items (eg, iwi or community groups). Conversely, part of the system could include storage being handled by a central collecting institution but with shared or devolved intellectual ownership of  collection items.

At its core could be a central registry of what exists where, who can access it, and what they can do with it, regardless of where the collection item/asset is physically/digitally stored. Together – traditional collecting organisations and others – could maintain a shared approach to maintaining the system across multiple organisations: agreed standards, collaborative governance, shared resources for system upgrades, more interoperability, and less reinvention of systems.

We already have parts of the infrastructure to develop this idea. DigitalNZ has the technology to provide the basis of a central registry. NDF provides a forum to bring people from across the GLAM sector to work together. And we have central institutions with people and systems to handle the content and help others build new repositories. As Andy Neale once said at an NDF conference, we’re a small country and we have the ability to get the right people in a room and shake things up. Maybe by shaking things up, we might settle on a system a little bit like this.

Changing times

My parents met in the early 1950s. Dad was on the verge of getting a scholarship to the UK; Mum was training to be a nurse. He got the scholarship and – so the family story that I heard goes – mum’s choice was to leave her training and go with him or lose him forever. I’ve never known the real details but it possibly points to a wider social norm where women were expected, in some cases required, to leave employment or training when they got married.

I was reminded of this when over summer I read Jenny Carlyon and Diana Morrow’s Changing Times: New Zealand since 1945. It’s a good read and as a general history it covers a lot of ground, from the post-war political consensus of a state focused on prosperity for the nuclear-family, to the social uncertainty of the late 60s through early 80s, followed by the reinvention of New Zealand through the deregulation of the 80s and 90s. The overarching theme is one of change from the hegemonic Pākehā landscape of the 1950s to the diverse and more tolerant yet still-not-perfect society in which we now live.

(As an aside, I’m curious about those latter two periods and the changeover between the 60s/70s and 80s/90s prompted by claims in last year’s election campaign from Bill English that ‘Labour intends to take New Zealand back to 1970s industrial relations’ (Jacinda Ardern shows every sign of being the real deal after first debate, accessed 5 February 2018). Seen more broadly, many on the Left now roundly criticise neo-liberalism. Were the economic changes inevitable? Could social progress have happened without them? Or was social liberalism so closely entwined with economic liberalism that neo-liberalism was unavoidable? But I’m venturing into territory I don’t know much about…)

What interests me most about this book is the handling of gender and race issues. Each of the periods above are discussed in roughly the same progression: what was the period like for the mainstream, Pākehā, and male-dominated ‘traditional’ society, followed by sections or chapters on what it was like for others, notably women and Māori. A good example is the handling of political awareness and protest throughout the 70s. Chapter 5 (‘In Ferment’) and 6 (‘Schisms) give a run-down on major protest movements, ranging from anti-Vietnam war protests, to the environmentalism of the Save Manapouri campaign and debates about nuclear weapons and nuclear power, wrapping up with race-relations evidenced through protests about sporting contact with South Africa.

But no mention of the 1975 Land March, surely one of the most far-reaching actions of the decade, with ramifications that are still with us today in the form of ongoing Treaty settlements. That protest of course is covered (and covered well) in a later chapter, ‘Race Relations’. It’s hard to overcome this type of ‘othering’ (and it’s something we’re dealing with in relation to Te Ara – see my talk from NDF last year). To combine all the chapters that deal with this period would have created a 120-page monster of a chapter, but the separation undermines how central second-wave feminism and Māori land rights were during the period.

We’re at an interesting period in the way we see and write about our history, with an expectation that people set out their perspective and acknowledge the weaknesses in it. Which is not to say that people shouldn’t attempt to write about other perspectives; in fact, it’s crucial particularly in a general history that the broad range of people’s experiences are included. It needs however some kind of framing that sets out explicitly the approach a writer is taking, as well as an overview of the significant changes across a period of history. In this book, a more explicit overview of each period could have helped by drawing attention to the connections between different forms of protest while acknowledging the ‘othering’ approach.

Perhaps though, one day soon, we’ll go further and start to see less light between ‘mainstream’ and ‘other’ histories. Not in an assimilation sense but in the sense that the diversity of other stories are seen as a core part of the mainstream story, and not an extra or add-on. One day our history might not be distinct stories of different views but one story that binds all the many strands into one rich and many-threaded story.

To that end as a society we’re in a process of change. I can see where this has come from. When you move from a hegemonic story to one that brings in other viewpoints, for a while those new viewpoints need their own place to make themselves heard. This is the approach that saw the bi-cultural model of a website like Te Ara tell predominantly Pākehā stories alongside separate stories about Māori aspects of New Zealand life: two narratives alongside each other rather than woven into each other’s fabric. And that probably reflects where New Zealand history was at the time: Māori stories needed space to breathe, and for a light to be shone on them to impress their importance upon New Zealand readers. But at some point we need to accept those new viewpoints as a central part of the main story and leave the othering behind.

I’m writing this the day before Waitangi Day. Our prime minister has just spoken on the marae at the Treaty Grounds. Jacinda Ardern, our third female prime minister and first pregnant prime minister, talked about the new Crown-Māori relations portfolio and the need to extend the Crown and New Zealand’s relationship with Māori beyond the negotiating table (PM to Māori at Waitangi: hold govt to account, accessed 5 February 2018). That Ardern’s pregnancy is beyond criticism in most civilised mainstream forums in New Zealand is a mark of just how far we have come as a society, as is the the partnership with Māori that she advocates. The demonstration that women can hold the highest office, and the acknowledgment that Māori are a central part of New Zealand, part of the mainstream and not some other, are perhaps the real changes we can be proud of.

Data and government

Three quick links about data and government:

Austerity is an Algorithm by Gillian Terzis in Logic Magazine looks at what can go wrong when algorithms start making decisions about benefit entitlements (accessed 1 February 2018).

Towards Rules for Automation in Government by Michael Karlin (AI policy advisor in Canada) provides an overview of the issues the Canadian government is considering as it develops policy for AI (accessed 3 February 2018).

Markets don’t work like they used to by James Plunkett considers the state of big data and the decisions and tactics (for better and worse) it’s driving in companies to tailor products and prices to consumers, and where governments need to think about principles-based regulation (accessed 5 February 2018).

Summer reading

A couple of interesting posts from the cultural sector including Nina Simon on Museum2 (accessed 9 January 2018) and the Berkshire Museum, looking at deaccessioning, market value, valuing communities and public trust. Also Tara Robertson’s closing keynote from the LITA Forum in late 2016 (accessed 18 January 2018) is a deeply insightful and moving personal and professional view on documentary heritage that shouldn’t be open.

In the digital government world, Paul Maltby (accessed 12 January 2018) provides useful pointers here on what digital and policy teams in government can learn from each. Published as part of a series of posts in the run up to the One Team Government unconference in June 2017. And lately, Steven Johnson in the NY Times Magazine (accessed 18 January 2018) writes about blockchain’s potential to revive an open and decentralised web (once it gets past disrupting currencies). 

Finally, and closer to home after a fascniating start to the week meeting Te Arawa trustees in Rotorua, Joshua Hitchcock writes in the Spinoff (accessed 18 January 2018) on the need for investment by and for iwi beyond purely economic development, to include all four pou: social, cultural, environmental, and economic.