There’s something about this longish quote from Nicholson Baker’s Room Temperature (Granta, 2011), that reminds me of Aaron Straup Cope’s talk at NDF2012, time pixels.

The artificial frog permanently influenced my theory of knowledge: I certainly believed, rocking my daughter on this Wednesday afternoon, that with a little concentration one’s whole life could be reconstructed from any single twenty-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected; that is, that here was enough content in that single confined sequence of thoughts and events and the setting that gave rise to them to make connections that proliferate backward until potentially every item of autobiographical interest—every pet theory, minor observation, significant moment of shame or happiness—could be at least glancingly covered; but you had to expect that a version of your past arrived at this way would exhibit, like the unhealthily pale frog, certain telltale differences of emphasis from the past you would recount if you proceeded serially, beginning with “I was born on January 5, 1957,” and letting each moment give birth naturally to the next. The particular cell you started from colored your entire re-creation. (p.41)

It was something not so much to do with the artisanal integers that made up much of Aaron’s talk, but where he took that integer idea and combined it with a time coordinate. Artisanal integers propose a unique ID for every location in the world (in particular every building); combine it with a time and you have spacetime IDs – an ID for every physical location at every moment in time.

From there you could map in 3d space every significant moment and location in your life, as well as cross matching it with other people’s significant moments and places. Where did your life cross paths with the people around you? Did you or they notice? Did the same events or moments in time carry the same significance? Fancy discovering that you shared a significant moment, or worse, that a moment you thought you shared with someone didn’t have the same significance for them.

It’s a bit ethereal, but it comes back to something more tangible, in New Zealand at least, in the form of the whakapapa, or the oral family histories Maori give when speaking on a marae. Whakapapa are about making connections between the speaker and their host. So it’s not only about the time and place at which they’re meeting, but all the times and places that they or their ancestors have crossed paths before.

It’s highly selective; you tell the story that endears you to your hosts. At it’s core, it’s about finding significant times and places in shared histories, but it’s the twenty-minute period the speaker is in at the moment they’re there on a marae that determines every piece of their history they choose to tell that day.


As for Nicholson Bakers’s frog, it came from an early Time-Life book, showing two frogs, one natural, the other grown artificially from “idioplasm sucked out of a single intestinal cell” of the other. Both looked liked frogs, but the artificial one, though “froglike in every detail”, displayed a pallor and pear-shaped body “that betrayed its origins”.

Three things to remember

More on the NDF2012 theme, three things I enjoyed hearing/thinking/talking about…

1. Piotr Adamczyk introduced us to new paintings based on blurred images in the Google Art Project’s museum view of paintings that are copyright-protected. Here are some from Phil Thompson.

(Will he quibble with my unauthorised use of this image?)

2. The word spectacle, from the media studies definition and used in Courtney Johnston’s talk, Going back to gallery land:

…an event designed for the viewers, built around a physical contest between two opposing sides. It made me realise that ‘spectacle’ does not have to be a dirty word. It can mean an event or experience that is carefully crafted to evoke a reaction. That reaction does not have to be dictated, but the expectation is that the viewer or participant will be aware that they are in a moment. ‘Spectacle’ in this sense means memorable, meaningful, moving.

3. Finally, talking to Sarah Barns and Keir Winesmith about augmented reality and a preference for responsive reality. Made me think of this wonderful building (again): the Institut du Monde Arabe, with its light-sensitive aperture cladding. To close the circle, here’s an amateur recording of an in-house video about the cladding: La fabrication des diaphragmes de l’Institut du Monde Arabe

Open quote

NDF2012 left me feeling two things this year. One, that one day I want to work in a museum; and two, that I need to start thinking about the websites I work with at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage as a big collection of data. That’s the first step in being able to realise our ambition that our sites can be a re-usable source of content for other people and organisations.

Back to museums, but still on the re-use theme, a couple of recents posts are worth quoting and remembering. Both are about why it’s ok to release and share you content. This one in particular, from a post about how art museums are failing art educators, argues museums are becoming irrelevant by not being online, and not being online effectively:

Restrictive museum policies seek to retain authority, but in practice render the museum’s expertise largely irrelevant for those beyond its walls. – “Can I Use This?” How Museum and Library Image Policies Undermine Education

As Suse Cairns said in her talk at NDF2012, if a user can’t find your content online, they’ll find it somewhere else (and that goes for onsite visitors too), which fundamentally undermines a museum’s position.

Another argument I’m hearing recently is that open collections undermine commercial opportunities, whether that’s an organisation’s commercial activities or similar activities in the private sector. This from Nick Poole is in response to fears that openness undermines commercial models:

It is perfectly possible to reconcile commercial activity in the Commons, but it is the type of commercial activity that depends on the addition of value, not the control of access. – Culture must always be a commons

Some good examples to follow: the British Library’s guide for authorising re-use: Access Reuse Guidance Notes for the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts, or go play at the Rijksmuseum’s Rijks Studio.

One plus one equals none

This is the basic argument of a lightning talk I was going to give at NDF2012. Life got in the way, so I didn’t give the talk, though I touched on some of the digital ecosystem bits in my opening remarks.


It’s about two policies playing out in public institutions: user pays and NZGOAL. User pays has been around for a while; I’m not sure how long exactly, as a lightning talk I wasn’t going to have to be too specific. NZGOAL is relatively new – the New Zealand Government Online Access Licensing framework (framework doesn’t get capped, no idea why not, but I guess NZGOALF looked stupid).

User pays feels like a hangover, from a time when the public service was just discovering its shiny 80s post-walk shorts self. Education, health, the conservation estate, cultural institutions all realised (or were made to realise) their worth and some kind of value in charging users. Fast-forward to the 21st century and a new ethos in government about making stuff available for  public and private re-use, supporting innovation, sharing the great asset of material held by public institutions. But add to that declining baselines (that’s bureaucrat-speak for having less money), and a public service under pressure to do more with less, and user pays is probably taking on a palliative role for organisation finances.

The two policies are in direct opposition to each other.

I don’t have answers but I do have questions and want to challenge organisations to ask themselves which approach is the one their organization is following. I expect it’s more complicated than that, and organisations are treading a careful line between the two policies – supporting openness where they can and charging users where they can’t avoid it. But it goes to a bigger question than that: our content is an asset with value, but who owns that asset and who has the right to exploit its value – the institutions/government or the public/taxpayers?

Virginia Gow had some good thoughts on this (based on the sort of collection institution experience I don’t have), that charging is warranted sometimes but not all the time. For example, charge for the initial digitisation but don’t charge for subsequent reorders of the same digital file. And Sean Murgatroyd had some thoughts after the NDF barcamp in Wellington, that argued against the simplicity of seeing it as a dichotomy. I’ll revisit his email soon.

But what I touched on in my opening remarks was why I think it’s the public and even commercial organisations that should be exploiting the value of our collective asset, and how that’s potentially more valuable to organisations than the money they might make through charges. Free content generates demand; commercial use creates greater exposure of our content and brands; content being used makes collections indispensable.

NDF2012 opening remarks

Here are the three main points I made in my talk at the opening of the NDF2012 conference in November 2012. For more about the National Digital Forum, which ran the conference, visit ndf.org.nz.


When I talk to people about the National Digital Forum, I hear a lot of different opinions. Two I find interesting are about the word digital. One, that digital’s no longer an other, and shouldn’t let itself be defined as new or ab-normal by adopting a particular moniker. The other, that digital is indeed the other. It’s a complicated one, the otherness, as it could go either way – digital replaces everything or digital exists separately to everything.

What I see in the programme this year is an awareness that we’re still figuring out the landscape between these ideas. What I take from it is that we’re doing something new and we’re also doing something old. The tools have changed, the possibilities have changed, and ever so slowly the foundations are changing too. But at our core we’re still story tellers, still educators, still learning from and sharing with each other. Digital is part of what we do and it’s also part of all that’s come before.


I’m not sure who said this first, but this slide’s a homage to last year’s conference organiser, Courtney Johnston. It allows me to continue the tradition she established of swearing during the organiser’s welcome.

You do good shit.

(After-note: Courtney called it. It was indeed referencing a quote a from her talk last year taken from Alexis Madrigal’s Atlantic article, What Big Media Can Learn From the New York Public Library: ‘The library employees give a shit.’ Oddly, the quote’s been pulled from the online version but you can watch Courtney reading the original at about 10 minutes in.)

What we do provides a real public good. It’s about democratising information and empowering citizens with knowledge and resources. We work for real people, real users of our material. They have questions, they’re after answers; they want to be challenged, or learn they were right all along. They’re using our collections, our websites, and our buildings, and making them theirs.

Most of us here work in publicly funded organisations. Like me you might be in central government. Either way, we’ve probably all heard phrases like fiscal restraint, better public services, result areas, doing more with less. We live with these phrases. They’re shaping the environments we work in, and informing the language we use to define our work. But let’s not forget, they’re a means to an end, and that end is to keep on doing what you do.


Together we’re building a digital ecosystem of stories, images, records, objects, film, music – everything. It’s not perfect – rights, restrictions, agreements, even protecting our patches – they all get in the way. But ultimately our strength and our futures lie in breaking the barriers and creating an ecosystem that New Zealanders can’t live without.

As an ecosystem, each person, organisation, dataset, website, whatever, plays its part to support and nurture the whole. In turn, each part becomes crucial to the whole and is – I naively hope – that much harder to remove when times get tough.

I’m encouraged by the number of commercial organisations represented at the conference this year. From our trade sponsors, Vernon and STQRY, to speakers like Glen Barnes, and even that little search company that keynote Piotr Adamczyk works for.

The commercial world sees our value. They want our content and our partnership. Embrace it. Push yourselves out into consumer-facing networks. Forget advertising and marketing campaigns; let your content get out and advertise itself, carry your brand, and sit alongside all the other content that people are consuming. Take any chance you can to let people know about your work by letting it be useful to them.

Become critical to business wherever you can. If someone wants to use your content – whether it’s a walking tour app, a cottage holiday website, or a good-old fashioned book – do whatever you can to make it possible. If you can avoid charging them, avoid it. Don’t do anything to get in the way of them using your content. Give it to them, get attribution and let them do the work to promote you and your organisation by using your content.

Again it’s the ecosystem, the more we embed ourselves in the everyday lives and business of New Zealand, the more sustainable we become.