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Cultural analytics


After the launch of n.e.w.s. at ISEA2008 in Singapore I did get attend Lev Manovich's lecture, author of the seminal work, The Language of New Media, (2001) MIT Press, Cambridge Mass, USA, where he pitched his 'cultural analytics' research project, as an ad for data-mining and fancy animations in academia, soon to takeover the world.

Manovich began his lecture by delving into the background of data, terming it a 'data revolution'. As we all realize during the last few years there has been an exponential explosion in the amounts of data, for example in 2011 the digital will be 10 times bigger than in 2006, a 60% growth increase. While people in dozens of areas of science and other fields such as business, banking, retail, etc. are using data-mining and interactive visualization; one area is lagging behind... culture. Manovich is into visualizing the cultural in digital form.He places the rise of interactive visualization at 1988, with the capturing of information in new ways and discovering patterns of data. In 2000, the 'data mining society' appears along with the extraction of knowledge or monetizing it. It seems to hit everybody except people in culture, as culture is the 'most regressive' part of society. We are now living in a society called various names which all apply to this: society of risk, society of information, or what he coins the 'data-mining society.'

Manovich then poses the question, which areas of computer science show the most important and interesting advancements in the next years? Research like 'homeland security?'. By using statistical methods, analysis of data sets (data-mining is Lev's sexy name for it) the 'real-time' trend is what dominates the Internet, from airline prices, online stores, retailers with their up-to-the minute inventory, banks following fraudulent transactions or even the reconfiguration of weather conditions. And it's all REAL-TIME! The prices, the laws, the controls-but how do we measure these patterns and effects?

With technology like the perceptual mapping (GIS) of Geographic Information Systems), or Wikipedia, we can go further and think about the analysis of what type of content is used. Who buys what, for what purpose and what is interesting? Manovich seems to be on an academic mission to save culture, as it were, so he has come up with a project that measures, in this case visualizes the massive digitalization of cultural assets.

He starts by showing a few examples of this mass digitalization: an example would be artstor http://www.artstor.org/index.shtml (only open to those with jobs in academia or students btw) containing 800,000 high quality digital images in art and architecture supported by the Mellon Foundation. Or take Google books, where 3000 books a day are scanned in, and, according to Manovich, by former MA graduates from art academies world wide. Partners included 20 leading university libraries and millions of hours of video in BBC motion gallery.

So where does all this data come from? Manovich equates this to the rise of user-generated content through social media sites, software and consumers. Part of the rise consists of terminology describing these 'gadgets' of electronic and social media as 'cultural objects' produced by non-professional users and the conversations around and through these objects. When writing his forthcoming book (The practice of everyday media) his 'MySpace became a non-place', Manovich winks towards a plug and emphasizes that this is the first time in history where massive amounts of people are creating things together visually. Some facts and figures: Flickr had 600,000,000 million images a few months back, now it has 1,2 billion. Facebook now has 14,000,000; other places like 'Cyworld' in Korea are even bigger. At You Tube, 65000 videos are uploaded every 24 hours. In Manovich terminology this is the end of 'new media' and the beginning of 'more media'.

How is art possible after Web 2.0? Professionals in the big art business that is also exponentially spinning out of control are in competition with a world where 1,5 million people are creating content. 'The number of images uploaded to Flickr every week is maybe larger than all objects contained in all art museums in the world.' The reproduction or copy of images is part of this trend; 'user-generated content is one of the fastest growing parts of expanding information universe'. Within this, '70% of the digital universe is created by individuals.'

The sixth point Manovich makes is the parallel expansion of the professional cultural universe: agencies (educational institutions, companies, museums) actors (professional cultural producers, students) publishing (books, catalogs, web sites, blog) all producing cultural objects. The point he makes here is that China, Singapore, Eastern Europe, South America, etc, have joined the cultural world; growth will also be exponential- from all over the world. So newly globalized countries along with the instant availability of cultural news over the web also has dramatically increased the number of cultural professionals who participate in global cultural production and discussions. Hundreds of thousands of students, artists, designers, now have access to the same ideas, information and tools, so it is not possible to talk about centers and provinces. In fact, the students, cultural professionals and governments running newly globalized countries are often more ready to embrace latest ideas than their equivalents in 'old centers' of world culture. http://www.archinect.com/gallery/ or http://www.coroflot.com/public/individual_browse.asp

In 1998-2007 visualization emerges as a new area of culture. In the growth of global culture the 'website' is default behavior, within a global, conscious space. How do you produce a theory about 'global digital cultures' with its cultural objects and hundreds of millions of contributors? Before you could write about professional culture, in these capital schools, but how can we follow the development in tens of thousands of cities and educational institutions? Through visual display, a daily aggregate or view counts? Certain institutions in culture Manovich mentions who are already doing this to various degrees are MOMA 'Design in Elastic Mind', the New York Times building 'Listening post', Volkswagen, Germany: Autostad and IAC building NYC. These cultural institutions support the growing number of visualization projects and uphold the required features of mobility, changeability and dynamism- 'information aesthetics' in other words. http://www.visualcomplexity.com/vc/.

Anyway, here is where Manovich defines his field with the topic: Cultural Analytics. By mapping the visual flows of culture, ideas, Cultural Analytics represents how culture and lifestyle preferences change over time. This is the jumpstart and theoretical discussion of all new cultural areas that are recently emerging for which we don't have an analytical language anyway. Via computers the analysis of large numbers of objects in these areas is possible.

For example, in graphing the story of the old world paradigm, to a 'flat world' of now what would be an inverted world? Newly developed countries are more culturally innovating than 'old world' ones. If so, what would this graph look like?

Manovich declares that we should discover these patterns and graphics and start thinking about culture as data. This is situational awareness for culture analysis. Go inside the objects, in an anti-structuralist way and show the diversity of culture. Look at something like 'Google trends'. Create an open cultural analysis research environment full of cultural data, cultural information that is now both professional and user-generated content.

Much like the way Amazon analyses our choices and gives recommendations, or something like 'Pandora' for music, n.e.w.s. could eventually generate recommendations for projects that might be of interesting based on our users on the website by monitoring where they look, what interests them.

In the closing words of Manovich, 'making stuff visible, the statistical distribution of content' is the future. Manovich now comes to his point, stating that the rise of 'culture visualization' is the graphing of these cultural patterns; his example is the website http://culturevis.com/cultural_analytics.html

'Humanities is dead anyway, culture is behind in following the development of other fields. Science is way ahead in creating a map, of all information.'


weight redistributions

I think I'm not atypical in my experience with technological interfaces. I am utterly dependent on email and my computer, but I'm not on facebook, and I don't even have a handphone. My point is that while there are a lot of persons who embrace very thoroughly all these interfaces, there are many who embrace them unevenly.

But what I really want to talk about is this idea that modern society is characterised by a series of “breaks" with older social and cultural constructs, and that we are caught up in this relentless parade of even newer trends replacing what was new just a moment ago.

I've found Lev Manovich's analysis in this regard to be very helpful. He argues: “The history of culture does not contain such sudden breaks.... New media does not radically break with the past; rather, it distributes weight differently between the categories that hold culture together, foregrounding what was in the background, and vice versa.”

In his essay, “The Database”, Manovich argues that narrative has been the central form of cultural expression of the modern age. What the computer age introduces is the database as cultural form. “Many new media objects do not tell stories ... in fact, they do not have any development, thematically, formally, or otherwise that would organize their elements into a sequence. Instead, they are collections of individual items, with every item possessing the same significance as any other.” Yet it is important to note that these database collections are not without some structure.

For Manovich what characterizes the computer age is the redistribution of weight between narrative and database. With the novel or cinema, what is in the foreground is narrative. “Particular words, sentences, shots, and scenes that make up a narrative have a material existence; other elements that form the imaginary world ... that could appear instead, exist only virtually.” A movie character is meaningful not because everything we need to know about her is explicitly presented on screen, but precisely because there are other characteristics, comparisons and contexts that we infer as viewers versed in the language and conventions of cinema. “Put differently, the database of choices from which narrative is constructed ... is implicit, while the actual narrative ... is explicit.” In new media this relationship is reversed. Consider a website, with its buttons, images, and various content. “The narrative is constructed ... by designing a trajectory leading from one element to another. On the material level, a narrative is just a set of links; the elements themselves remain stored in the database. Thus the narrative is virtual while the database exists materially.”

As I interpret Manovich, the art critic's responsibility is not to simply celebrate the creative exploitation of these redistributions, and the incessant proliferation of new media products. Towards the end of his essay, Manovich implicitly argues for the making of judgements, ones that recognise the criticality of artistic interventions.

“The endless new possibilities provided by computer software hold the promise of new cinematic language [or new computer-based visual culture], but at the same time they prevent such languages from coming into being.... [In] a culture ruled by the logic of fashion ... artists tend to adopt newly available options while simultaneously dropping already familiar ones. Every year, every month, new effects find their way into media works, displacing previously prominent ones ... And this is why [Dziga Vertov’s classic film Man with a Movie Camera (1929)] has particular relevance to new media.” Arguably “the most important example of a database imagination in modern media art ... [Man with a Movie Camera] proves it is possible to turn ‘effects’ into a meaningful artistic language.” Because his film is motivated, even though not by a straightforward story, but by an argument, “Vertov is able to achieve something that new media designers and artists still have to learn -- how to merge database and narrative into a new form.”


data miners, data users

My guess is that one of the reasons WE have been so slow in engaging with the crucial and fascinating issue that Renée has raised is the dumbfounding scale and complexity of the phenomenon. The numbers are mind-boggling. And the potential no less so, which is why it deserves our full attention. It cuts right to the quick of the usership challenge: for all our claims about "artistic research projects", we have been dismally slow in rolling up our sleeves and doing number-crunching and exploiting data, as if it were for the experts. And yet we, perhaps advertently or inadvertently, are helping produce the ones and zeroes. If we are fated to be objects of data, we should want to be the subjects (agents) of its use.

It seems to me that there is terrific potential for what might loosely be described as "quantitative" art criticism, that is, data-driven analysis of what is generally deemed to be an essentially qualitative, speculative pursuit. Correlative mapping of (x) disparities in the distribution of wealth in a society and (y) aggregate art market prices is something I'd like to look at -- it would surely put a damper on the idea that art per se is emancipatory. But that's just one idea (and a product of my conspiratorial mindset at that); how about mapping the number of times Deleuze is referenced in art-critical discourse as opposed to Benjamin... How effects of emulation correlate with... well whatever, you see my point.

The thing is, the freeware for this kind of endeavor already exists -- which is important, because data-mining is only worthwhile if you've got control and use of the factory to exploit and transform the stuff. Perhaps my example is naive, but there is a software developed in Sweden called Gapminder, which is usually used by NGOs to give visually presentations of relative income, carbon emissions, life expectancy and the like between over-developed and under-developed parts of the world. But you can also upload your own data, of any kind into either axis, modify the time line etc, and potentially generate compelling results. It is worth watching the first ten minutes of this Swedish guy called Hans Rosling presenting the software on TED (it goes downhill dramatically after 12 minutes): http://www.gapminder.org/video/talks/ted-2007---the-seemingly-impossible...

One problem with dataesthetics is the... aesthetics. All show, not much biting analysis, evoking but not helping to explain the phenomena they are ostensibly addressing. Sounds a lot like contemporary art, right? Exactly. Which is why we are seeing more of this kind of stuff in would-be "research-based" exhibitions. However, there are exceptions -- and I recently came across a beautiful cognitive map, devised by Boyack and Klavans, that plots out paradigms in science. http://didi.com/brad/mapOfScience/

It looks sensual from afar, but it's made of snippits of information. The map spatially lays out different areas of science in a plane and, according to the authors, "was constructed by sorting some 800,000 scientific papers into different scientific paradigms (red circular nodes) based on how often the papers were cited together by authors of other papers. Links (curved lines) were made between the paradigms that shared common members, then treated as rubber bands, holding similar paradigms nearer one another when a physical simulation had every paradigm repel every other: thus the layout derives directly from the data. Larger paradigms have more papers. Labels list common words unique to each paradigm." It is used to "determine such things as which areas of science are most closely connected to one another, are most and least intellectually vital, or which scientific areas produce the most patents."

Shouldn't we be doing this kind of thing, that is, data-mining in the realms of worldart and then reflexively turning the data back on itself and outward into the outer fold? Doing so convincingly also requires delving more deeply than Manovich does into the prehistory of data display -- in the early years of twentieth-century art, in the work of Marcel Duchamp most particularly -- before science and artistic culture parted ways in the 1920s. But that's another story, perhaps another post.