Airbrushing History?

Members of the House of Representatives have accused Google Maps of attempting to obscure the fallout of Hurricane Katrina by posting pre-hurricane images to their satellite imagery site.

Lawmakers investigating this supposed slight claim that it does an “injustice” to Katrina victims, some of whom used the site when it had post-hurricane imagery to see if their homes were damaged.

Google says it chose to use the pre-hurricane photos because of their superior resolution, but conspiracy-believing critics think they have worked with local government to give the impression that the relief effort in Louisiana is doing better than it really is.

Either way, mistaken intentions on Google’s part or overreaction from Congress, this shows how much attention is given to Web sites as the archive of our culture. Will Google control the de facto historical record of the 21st Century?


Musicians Support Neutrality

The AP reported yesterday that many musicians are coming around to support Net Neutrality. It’s a switch, given that a free Internet was behind the Napster and file-swapping controversies from the mid-1990s–controversies that seriously affected the way the music industry does business. In those days, it was in the best interest of the major record labels to shut down file-swapping, so that musicians would be justly paid for their works.

Of course, the musicians supporting Net Neutrality are not major artists on influential labels; usually they are on small labels or are unsigned. They have the most to lose if the Internet does not stay neutral. If service providers are allowed by Congress to give priority to certain Web sites, smaller musicians who cannot pay for that priority service may remain unheard.

The article quotes Rep. Edward Markey, chair of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet. Markey says that a blow to Net Neutrality could hurt innovation in more fields than just music. “This is nothing more than a few bottleneck fee, a corporate broadband tax that will discriminate against less powerful voices and those unable or unwilling to pay such discriminatory fees,” Markey said.

The Internet and World Wide Web have always paralleled the frontier’s evolution. In fact, some have gone so far to call the Web the Digital Frontier. And why shouldn’t it evolve in a similar way? After all, the West was essentially an influx of newly “discovered” land that was suddenly made available for commerce and settlement. The same is true of the Web. In both cases, entirely new markets appeared as if overnight.

In both situations, however, it was the major players, the companies and people in control of communications and transportation, who could determine access to the new frontier. In American history, that control came through the railroads, where rail gauge often decided whose trains could travel the tracks. Preferential treatment was given to those who could manufacture trains that could actually use the network. The same is true for the Internet, in a way. If Net Neutrality folds, large corporations will again decide whose information gets the privilege of traveling over the network.

In the interim spaces, smaller voices and lives get lost.

Tagging Art

The New York Times reports that art museums are rethinking the ways they classify their online collections. One solution that has worked well for Web 2.0 sites is social tagging. Now, several museums have launched tagging projects that allow the public to associate keywords with works of art, with the goal of making it easier to find a particular painting without necessarily knowing the artist or title.

Though some programs are in place already–for example at the Cleveland Museum or Art and the Smithsonian Institution–some still doubt whether the public can be trusted to tag effectively. In 2005, the Metropolitan Museum of Art tested social tagging software and found that the publicly-generated tags varied widely from what curators expected. In theory, this makes a database harder to search because oddball semantic links are formed between works of art that may have no other conceivable connection but wind up together in search results.

A popular tagging system could make up for oddball tags by sheer numbers. If enough people tag a document “correctly,” then those correct tags would overcome the odd ones. Sure, the occasional weird search result could pop up, but the majority of them would work fine. The problem is that art museum sites don’t boast the number of visitors sites like Flickr and do. They don’t have the numbers to generate a large set of usable tags.

There is a larger question here, one of authority. Art criticism, which is what this tagging system implicitly is, has traditionally been the realm of experts. For good or ill, experts have studied the history of art, the origins of certain movements, the works of prolific painters, the styles of painting, and know a good deal about what kind of art belong where. For centuries, the working details of the art world have been kept separate from the public.

The result, I think, is that artwork has gained a status as academic or luxurious or, at least, “cultural.” What happens then when we allow the public to freely categorize great works of art? Will it cheapen the experience of viewing art? Perhaps removing yet another layer of mediation is always a good thing, but if it destroys the subject as we know it, was it worth it?

Another view, one I like to believe, is that by allowing the public to connect more with the art world, we do make are more vulgar. By doing so, perhaps we can encourage more people to create works of art because they will not be thinking of it as something high-brow and out of their reach. Instead, it could become something we do every day. Hopeful thinking, maybe, but social tagging could start something here…

Ph.D. Problems

The following letter was printed in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle this past Wednesday. I think it’s funny as hell, given the errors in fact present in it, but it also lacks almost any semblance of logic. It is reprinted here without permission of the Chronicle, so if they have a problem, they need to contact me. The letter was written (as is) by Jack Clarkson of West Yellowstone, Mont.:

Although I was not a history major while in high school, I can reflect back upon our American history. Turns out, there were no Ph.D.s on the trio of ships that sailed to the Americas to establish our first colonies. I could not find any Ph.D.s that signed the Declaration of Independence. We have never in our history had a Ph.D. for president.

The West was settled and populated by ordinary men and women, no Ph.D.s there. None of our astronauts have been Ph.D.s, Wall Street is not populated by Ph.D.s either. We have been in two world wars, the Spanish American War, the police action in Korea, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm and now the War on Terror which is currently taking place in Afghanistan and Iraq. I read the papers, and watch the news, I do not hear of any Ph.D.s who are fighting for our country in those theaters. Outside of the medical field, I do not recall any really famous Ph.D.s or any Ph.D.s who have made significant contributions to our society.

To tout the doctorate as some kind of mantel that is bestowed upon the most learned and the most sagacious members of our society, and that their contribution is somehow more significant than those with less formal education is an error made by those who would teach us that education is an end unto itself.

The old adage is: Those who can “do,” those who can’t “teach.” It sure rings true if you look at the history of our country.

Now, I’m not usually one to nitpick others, and I’m not about to start with Mr. Clarkson. However, I think he needs to get his facts straight and learn the basics of a solid argument (versus an all-out anti-academic rant) before he deigns to share his opinion with the public again. Responses?

Site News

A few bugs during the upgrade to a shiny new version of WordPress, but after a little troubleshooting, most things have survived the transition. The only thing still not working is the category heat map that used to occupy the sidebar, about halfway down. There have always been problems with the heat map plugins that I’ve found, so I can’t say it was unexpected. I should have something working in that spot in a few days. Until then, navigate the old fashioned way, with the archives page link at the top of the site.

Wikipedia and Academic Credentials

In the wake of a controversy over the credentials of a contributor to a site that does not require contributors to have credentials of any kind whatsoever, Wikipedia may soon require contributors who rely on their credentials in writing to certify their authority. They will still be able to remain anonymous.

I suppose this is news in the same sense that anything that happens in Iraq is news. It’s not all significant, but it’s important because of its high visibility. This hasn’t changed the fundamental ways that the Wikipedia works. Rather it asks a small set of contributors to prove themselves if they want to use their professional creds as proof in an article. Still, it’s worth noting.