(MENAFN - Khaleej Times) THE impact of the digital revolution is unmistakable. Emails have replaced letters and memos; IP telephony and instant messaging have replaced telephone calls; audio and video content are now "broadcast" online on channels like YouTube, and friendships are maintained and built over social networks like LinkedIn and Facebook.
With many of life's tasks now taking place within the digital realm, a complex amalgamate of our thoughts, emotions, connections, photographs and other personal details are captured
A looming challenge is to track and make sense of the growing volume of the data, as the world experiences major social, technological and cultural developments, according to Lev Manovich, professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego. "The developments are already happening in business, digital media and government agencies," he said at the Internal Symposium of Electronic Art, a conference recently co-presented by the Singapore Management University and the La Salle College of the Arts.
Not only do we now have to handle the explosion in the volume of data, there is a significant shift in the way that we approach and use data. For one, we are now living in what Manovich describes as a data mining society. Information is gathered at a fanatical pace by all kinds of users, ranging from number-crunching financial institutions, to government agencies engaged in anti-terrorism. Other businesses and organisations, large and small, are also active collectors of data of all kinds.
At the same time, there has been significant growth from the "supply" side too, with various content providers adding to the trove of data already out in the digital realm. Within the past decade, there has been a "massive digitisation of existing cultural assets". For instance, the Google books project digitises some 3000 books per day; the BBC Motion Gallery has hundreds of hours of videos; and websites such as Artstor.com feature digital images of art and architecture. Clearly, growth is coming not just from quantifiable data, like figures and statistics. "For the first time in human history, there is an unprecedented amount of cultural content available in digital form, so culture is going to become another (type of) data and hence would be data mined," he said.
"Our ability to capture, store and analyse data is increasing exponentially, and this growth has already affected many areas of science, media industries, and the patterns of cultural consumption. Think, for instance, of how search has become the interface to global culture, while at the same time recommendation systems have emerged to help consumers navigate the ever-increasing range of products," wrote Manovich in an earlier paper.
But despite technological advancements, Manovich calls the approach and access to such data "archaic" and full of "19th century metaphors", such as photo albums, grids and timelines. Nevertheless, he believes "a systematic use of large-scale computational analysis and interactive visualisation of cultural patterns will become a major trend in cultural criticism and culture industries in the coming decades."
Why Cultural Data Matters
If almost every facet of communications and interactions occur digitally, the information captured could certainly teach us about our civilisation. "If data analysis, data mining, and visualisation have been adopted by scientists, businesses, and government agencies as a new way to generate knowledge, let us apply the same approach to understanding culture," wrote Manovich.
For a better feel of the data volume, here are some numbers: Digital data, as a whole, and not just cultural content in digital form, has been exploding in size. According to International Data Corporation (IDC), an IT research firm, the size of digital data, or the so-called "digital universe" in 2007, is 281 exabytes, or 281 billion gigabytes. This figure is 10 per cent larger than IDC's own earlier estimates. "The resizing comes as a result of faster growth in cameras, digital TV shipments, and better understanding of information replication," states IDC in a March 2008 report.
For sure, this "digital universe" is not going to stop growing. By 2011, it will be at a size ten times larger than it was in 2006, representing a compound annual growth rate of 60 per cent in this period, predicts IDC. According to firm, "fast growing corners of the digital universe included those related to digital TV, surveillance cameras, Internet access in emerging countries, sensor-based applications, data-centres supporting "cloud-computing" and social networks."
Thus, it is an understatement to say that in this Web 2.0 era of user-generated content, social networking sites such as Facebook, Flickr, YouTube, Friendster and MySpace have thrived, and will continue to do so. These online tools encourage conversations, verbal and non-verbal. Through these sites, users can also share comments on photographs, links, videos, games, or any other content. "This new universe was not simply a scaled up version of 20th century media culture. Instead, we moved from media to social media," wrote Manovich.
Culture (Non) Professionals
With millions of people contributing to the massive pool of content, Manovich questions if we can maintain traditional notions of what it means to create, for "what does it mean to be an artist when you live in a world where 1.5 billion people are creating media content?" he asked. "The number of images uploaded to Flickr every week is likely to be larger than all the objects contained in all the art museums in the world." He joked that if society were to kill itself, the images on Flickr will see an increase in value.
With next to zero barriers of entry, the number of "culture professionals" for the digital realm has grown tremendously, and with this growth, the proliferation of digital content. Manovich argues that within the global community, where millions have easy access to the same ideas, information and tools, anyone can claim to be a
The geography from which these experts hail, however, differ greatly from the "old centres" of world culture. Manovich observed that students, culture professionals and governments in newly globalised countries are actually more embracing of the latest trends and ideas. Websites such as archinect.com/gallery , coroflot.com and xplsv.tv illustrate this very clearly with the range of countries from which the
"The exponential growth of a number of both non-professional and professional media producers over the last decade has created a fundamentally new cultural situation and a challenge to our normal ways of tracking and studying culture," wrote Manovich.
Another trend that has emerged within the digitised cultural space is 'visualisation'. An age-old technique to present patterns and ideas, visualisation has traditionally been a means to which scientists understand data. Manovich believes "visualisation has switched from being something functional to a new area of activity, entering some of the most prestigious exhibitions spaces in public and
The New York Times building, recently sold by the newspaper publisher bearing the same name, is a case a point. No longer is the building a reinforcement of the "Old Gray Lady" image. Rather, the facade of the building is a dynamic digital composition of content from that day's edition of the New York Times, integrated with data from the paper's archives, to create a visualisation of text fragments. "Previously, people used photography, film and video to represent the world. Now they can represent the world through sets of data and patterns in the data. Visualisation is a new kind of aesthetic. It is intricate, connected but offers an incredible density of data," said Manovich. With the exponential increase in digital data, be it for science, commerce or art, the use of interactive visualisation is a new way to make sense of data patterns which could transform people's perspectives about the world.
Analytics And Applications
Thus, taken together, a new field dedicated to the tracking and examination of what the digital cultural data says about humankind is emerging. It is what Manovich calls "cultural analytics", seen as a logical development as the study of humanities that increasingly involves digital media and IT.This term, cultural analytics, was coined to deliberately invoke connections with the existing study of web analytics, business analytics and visual analytics, Manovich explained. He envisions the study of cultural analytics to involve interactive visualisation, Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and data analysis for the research, teaching and presentation of cultural artefacts
To Manovich, cultural analytics has the potential to generate new approaches for studying cultural history and contemporary culture. He argued: "If slides made possible art history, and if the movie projector and video recorder enabled film studies, what new cultural disciplines may emerge out of the use of visualisation and
data analysis?" The range of users of these applications goes further: humanists, social scientists, cultural critics, museums, digital heritage projects as well as cultural consumers at large. In short, the potential impact of cultural analytics - while a relatively niche field for now - is far and wide-ranging. "Everybody involved in culture today - from the individual members of a global 'cultural class' to governments around the world which are competing in knowledge production and innovation - would be potentially interested in what we want to do - measures of cultural innovations, detailed pictures of global cultural changes, real-time views of global cultural consumption and production," wrote Manovich.
This, in turn, means that cultural theorists and historians have to change the way they approach their work. Traditionally, they concentrate on small data sets. From now on, they will have no such luxury, as billions of cultural objects are churned out quickly. But with the huge and growing volume of cultural data being created and to be mined, the study of digital data seems daunting, if not impossible. Of course, Manovich remains optimistic. "A new kind of science is possible, to try and reduce the diversity and complexity of the world to a few equations," he said