Curating the Kunstkammer

Image: Portrait of Rudolf II as Vertumnus by Arcimboldo: Public Domain

Rudolf II’s Kunstkammer, or Wunderkammer was not a typical “cabinet of curiosities” – a haphazard assemblage of unrelated specimens – but a systematically arranged collection of objects – the beginnings of the modern museum.

What differentiates a ‘museum’ from simply a ‘collection of objects’ is the act of curation – of ordering, of mapping coherence, chronology and narrative to that collection. This is purposeful meaning making and in this section I will extend the theme that just as words are not neutral, that Ed Tech speak is value laden, that meaning is specific to the individuals and context, data is also not neutral, collections of online behaviours, when curated by algorithms, into meaningful catalogues and qualitative judgements are highly political.

This maps a further interesting angle onto the notion of ‘The Internet of Me’ beyond that of a deeply ‘personalised online experience’. The ‘me’ should also be considered a constituent part of the internet itself in terms of the way my data and my online behaviours are constituted for the purpose of others. ‘We are not the customers of Google, we are its product’ as the adage goes. We are both the curators of our online identity and the entity being curated.

The key component of curation is filtering, making value judgements not only on what to include, but also on what to leave out.  The personalization of our online experiences leaves us with little knowledge of what is being left out, what are we not seeing on any given subject or controversy (Pasquale, 79, 2015). Pasquale provides a powerful critique on the inscrutability of algorithms that ‘curate’ the information we see.

Edwards examines this inscrutability in the knowledge infrastructures around education as well, in the interplay between openness and closedness in education, especially ‘open education’ (Edwards, 252, 2015).  Despite the ‘sheen of naturalised common sense’ (Bayne et al, 247, 2015) the binary positions that open = good, closed = bad is questionable.

Edwards points out that the open education movement is entangled in movements towards commercialisation and capitalism (ibid, 254) and we can can see this in the confused space that MOOCs are currently operating in, moving toward subscription-only models of delivering ‘open’ courses. Closed educational spaces can also have positive nurturing potential (ibid, 252). The development of BlockBot by a group of feminist developers so that serial harassers can be blocked en masse is an example of ‘closed’ = positive, omission is good, embedding cultural values and non-neutral design into technology is healthy (Watters, 80, 2014).

O’Neil points out, in Weapons of Math Destruction, that algorithms determining what data is collected and what is not collected are always entangled in our values system. For example, predictive policing modelling, such as PredPol, despite appearing to run on value-free objective algorithms that track patterns of crime inevitably are also tracking poverty, race, class and other cultural patterns. This is because they focus on particular definitions of crime that are often poverty driven, not the more white-collar crime such as financial fraud,  that might be trackable to more affluent areas (O’Neil, 89, 2016).

Langdon Winner contest that we are sleepwalking into ‘technology somnambulism’ where we have handed over extraordinary powers to the search sector to determine what our online experience will be – what information we see, where we shop, how we perceive issues.

In this way, we have handed over curation of our online experience to algorithms that are largely opaque and unknown to us.

To conclude the first three chapters of this digital Wunderkammer, I have taken as a starting point, the way in which we select and are selective in ‘curating our online identities’, moved through the tensions of ‘resistance and embrace’ in how the digital landscape evolves; the shifts in thinking, in language, our uncomfortable relationship at the mid-point, and finally exploring the value-laden, politicised nature of ‘curation’ in our our online spaces; to way we use data, process data; the choices we make, or are made on our behalf, as to what to include and exclude.

The main purpose of this assignment has been to put each of these three areas under scrutiny as we would artefacts in a Wunderkammer, hold them up to the light and tilt them a little so as to explore them a little closer.

It is a reflection of my experiences on the IDEL course, 2016, the journey that I have taken and the avenues I have been drawn down, explored with curiosity and interest and chosen to place in my own Digital Wunderkammer.