TheKnowledge - peer learning for digital strategy in culture
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TheKnowledge lends its name from the London cab drivers' examination, which tests future cabbies' navigation skills in the streets of London. Drivers internalise London's idiosyncratic street network by memorising hundreds of 'runs', moving endlessly around the city streets until knowledge of them is etched indelibly in their memory. With this online environment, TheKnowledge, we've wanted to evoke that sense that learning happens by doing. Moreover, that it is from other practitioners, implementing tools and approaches in practical situations, that those new to something often learn the most. We've called this process peer learning, and it is intended to reflect the experiences of practitioners working in organisations of all sizes, as they tackle a variety of issues in artistic and operational development. We have compiled the research we conducted in a collaborative writing platform, a Wiki, not only to aide us in the collective collation of material, but to signal a hope that this work can continue on such a collective basis.
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TheKnowledge sits under the umbrella of Art of Digital London (AoDL), which runs regular social events, training sessions and meetings about digital strategy in culture. The project has been organised by OpenMute, Mute Publishing's sister agency, which possesses decades of experience analysing the net and developing open source software. Having grown up with the free culture movements associated with the nascent, critical net culture of the 1990s and 2000s, OpenMute's initiatives advocate for an open net. This means open standards and non-proprietary systems; working in collaborative communities; the net as place of heterogeneous voices; and many to many media. Most importantly, it means seeing the net as a place where productive artistic, social and political reconfigurations occur. A time of transition As society is altered by ever expanding digital networks, cultural organisations have to grapple with a world in transition. Media are under fundamental transformation, with photography moving from chemical and paper to screens and metadata, 'the internet of things' ushering augmented reality into the white cube, and the mass audiences of television and film splintering into a thousands niches.
In addressing this condition of digital transition the following key issues continue to inflect our research topics:
- The public domain: there is a struggle to maintain a public domain on the net, where pluralism is valued and artistic experimentation can be supported. The threat of the ground (or 'real estate') of the net becoming privately owned is ever-present.
- Economic models: Promises come and go, net gurus and commercial media pundits can't help but promise the earth. Remember 'the long tail', a principle of web distribution which was going to help small producers win out? Well, it proved to be quite the opposite: the long tail turned out to be that of digital labour (as theorised by Trebor Scholz), benefiting primarily big players like Google, while smaller players remain perilously ill-equipped to bring incomes and content provision – still expected to be free – into some kind of balance. As cultural organisations and individual media makers, our audiences may double and triple, but reliable economic models remain thin on the ground.
- Organisational change: integrating the net into artistic and operational practice means root and branch changes for many organisations. There are processes of disintermediation and disruption to adapt to; artistic areas – like photography – have become almost fully digital, while supply chains have moved almost entirely online. These challenges must often be understood outside of traditional IT contexts; to make the right decisions on digital strategy, all areas of an organisation should be involved.
- Different stories: the cultural sector has a different set of orientations than the commercial, market led, media sector. Yet most of what we hear about the net is determined by the latter's agendas, meaning it can be hard to find more appropriate stories of good practice on the web.
- Privacy and surveillance: people's online lives are increasingly being tracked for commercial purposes. It is important to engage with these issues when working with social networks, ecommerce systems or locative media, as they have a significant bearing on civil liberties and freedom of expression.
- Labour and value fluency: understanding the value of our content and our relationships to our communities, creators and audiences. People's 'social graphs' – a term used to describe individuals' cumulative traces in social networks (through communication, browsing or purchasing activity) – create value. As your content is channelled through networks that create none of their own, it must be asked whether there is a fair trade-off between infrastructure provider and user activity?
- Audiences are on the move: you might think the directly experienced live event is impervious to the kinds of transformations digital networks are visiting upon other cultural forms. But even there, the opposite is true, as the alchemical reaction between authentic presence and socialised distribution continues to dramatically grow audiences for performers and their commissioners.
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