Landscape organizes everything within sight.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Google Book Search in the Garden: Folkways and folk history

Yesterday morning a camera crew with Google Book Search showed up in my garden and asked me some questions about the way digitalized archives are changing the relationships between knowledge and society. I described my own work: how the full-text search capabilities for eighteenth- and nineteenth-century books are allowing scholars to recognize historical patterns about subtle variables (like walking) that would have never shown up before. Pedagogy is changing too: we're able to introduce hundreds of undergraduates at a time to rare books that previously only ten to twelve advanced students in a seminar would have ever seen.

But the big changes will be those that take place well outside the academy. For most of its existence, the academy has seen itself as a field for training the leaders of the future and the children of the elite. Only these happy few were granted access to the library, the archive, and the manuscripts. Sometimes a diligent outside researcher could make his way in: but more often the traditional archives required letters of recommendation for a researcher to even set foot inside the library's hallowed halls. These constraints are all the more real outside of America, where letters of reference are taken vary seriously; French historians describe the long process of waiting for access to the Bibliothéque Nationale; Jennie Johnson, a Fulbright Fellow in China, has told me about a several-month wait for access to the university library, after which she was told that without a PhD she would not qualify for access to the English-language archives. Throwing the doors of the library open means a world of access not only for scholars, but more importantly, for those who have never had access at all.

From the white towers of academia it's easy to wonder whether clerks, consultants, and bus-drivers really want access to sixteenth-century incunabulae and government memos after all -- don't we have to threaten our undergrads with bad grades to get them into the library? Common wisdom holds that only academics will participate in the digital turn of rereading the archive, that the hoi polloi only care about news and fandom. But I predict a different path.

Digitizing the world's archives, not merely the great books but also the government records and ephemera, puts academic-level power in the hands of ordinary citizens. While library research has limited importance to most of them, other kinds of research form an organic feature of ordinary folkways in contemporary America. When church-going Christians meet for their weekly or monthly Bible study, they rarely meet with only the Bible in their hands. More often, they come with some appendix: another translation (or three), a book of poetry that enlightens a related train of wisdom, a manual of Bible history that provides some richer context for making sense of the past. These meetings can turn into furious exchanges of information and perspective, as participants strive to understand more deeply the lessons of scripture. Evangelical blogs are now buzzing about the possibilities of comparing nineteenth-century biblical literature, and republishing a list of relevant books compiled by one scholar in particular. The poetry, history, and legacy of Christian history is being expanded for these people, and so is the opportunity to debate.

Gardeners also check the historical record. Associations of seed-savers were plowing through ancient Burpee catalogues of seeds long before the internet republished them, searching for evidence of tomato and green bean strains that had since been discontinued by corporate seed producers. Many of the original strains had been bred to better survive particular regional conditions -- low water and high heat, or the clay soils of Texas, for example -- and many were bred for "heirloom" qualities of flavor and color once prized but then forgotten in the frenzy for mass-production farming. Garden manuals from the past, out of copyright and now searchable on Google, offer another nursery of new ideas for the small-scale and sustainable gardening community.

Similarly, conspiracy theorists of assassination -- the group with the most significant popular following -- have traditionally circulated among themselves facsimiles of government reports, not only from the Civil Rights era, but also from earlier periods of American political history thought to illuminate a tradition of political corruption and media manipulation at the highest level. On internet forums and blogs, the flood of report-sharing spirals, as conspiracy theorists and their debunkers compare contemporary news stories, published histories, government documents, and republished photographs, accusing each other (and the press) of photoshopping and otherwise distorting the historical record. As the digitized historical archive gives them more material, the participants have access to a far wider class of evidence from which to assemble their picture of a historical tradition of government corruption.

These kinds of folk-research are going to change, just as surely and certainly as academic research is changing. History, often the monopoly domain of academics, also exists wherever geneaologists recite the narrative of their family history and wherever union leaders examine the relationship between politics and public opinion. Usually history with poor sources produces bad story-telling: incoherent and non-persuasive; and this is one reason why academic historians have kept their role as mediator for so long. Access to sources offers a chance for folk-history to become real history, and that means the proliferation of believable, grounded, persuasive historical accounts about all the things the folk care about -- Bible research, sustainable agriculture, and political corruption included. That new kind of history represents a very powerful trajectory indeed.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

How Jaman is changing the world of film

Film festivals online aren’t always all they’re cracked up to be. Any of us who’ve spent hours trolling through college dorm life on YouTube in search of the truly interesting can testify. To get to really disappointing, however, you’d have had to have seen the glossy flier PBS left in my local video store. “Online film festival!” it read. “Watch dozens of online independent films! Submit your own!”

At last, I thought. Art has been liberated by the internet. No more searching for random masterpieces in the haystack – no more tramping out to film festivals unknown in strange parts of Berkeley and the Mission – no more waiting until the wisdom of my arthouse friends trickles down to me, third-hand and worn. I’m going straight to the source. PBS has a film festival and I’m gonna be there.

The online film festival turned out to last all of one hour. One very unsatisfying hour. One could watch exactly the first five minutes of any of thirty films that had been screened somewhere, some time about a year ago. One could also compete ruthlessly (I imagine) for some incredibly small piece of funding if one wished to make one’s own film, to be deposited into the never-to-be seen closet of PBS. TO be fair, it’s not really PBS’s fault. Unlike the BBC, which has been putting its documentaries from the last thirty years online (Yay public works! Hoorah for intellectual riches!), PBS doesn’t own the rights to its own films; it screens, it doesn’t produce, and it doesn’t own. So no time soon is anything from PBS going into the public realm. Nor has any smarty-pants startup figured out how to let PBS filmmakers opt-in to a wide-release online program.

Not so for the Tribeca Film Festival, which is cutting a swath a river wide in the precedents of the future. Thanks to a new film service called Jaman, which kicks Youtube’s ass in terms of design, Tribeca is live online, for real. You can download the whole of every film playing, and then you have a week to watch them – afterwards you can rent or buy any of the fabulous independent documentaries and movies for $1.99 a week, or buy the download for $5.99 forever. Downloading is quick, efficient, and beautiful. Jaman plays fullscreen with a charming and easily navigated interface, and even promotes Web 2.0 community by allowing users to comment on their favorite films and form up into film-groupie clusters to better discuss their faves.

Tribeca is a festival you may never have heard of, because it’s quite young as film festivals go. Started in 2002 to commemorate the 9/11 bombings, it advertises itself as a festival about community and international community – and isn’t that indeed a praiseworthy way to commemorate and atone for the lives lost in the twin towers. In fact, next time she runs for president, I’m definitely voting for Jane Rosenthal (a.k.a. Ms. Tribeca Film Festival Founder) over George W. Bush, hands down. In the jurors’ selections, these noble ideals pan out in the form of gorgeous footage, hypnotic storytelling, and truly diverse ideas – (I am stunned into squealing ecstasy while writing this by the shadow-puppet, found-footage world of a nineteenth-century Hungarian adventurer searching in Tibet for truth and international community, in Tibor Szemzo’s A Guest of Life) --- because in the world of film (let’s face it), there are still a lot of talented people doing the kind of intelligent, creative shorts that might play once on PBS but then disappear into the never-never land of hard-to-find DVD’s. That is to say, there’s a lot more talent than distribution. The traditional distribution channels, tailored to blockbuster violence-and-sex dramas, aren’t changing any time soon. But new distribution channels, like Jaman, are changing that. They’re opening up a middling realm where semi-educated people (like me) can learn about, ingest, and enjoy the world of independent, spontaneous goodness.

What that might translate into – and here’s the coolest part – is more exposure, more discourse, and more money for those starving filmmakers, our friends, who at the moment compete at obscene rates of thousands to one to win the not-very-lucrative sums of money available from ITVS (PBS’s documentary wing) – or failing that, produce their beautiful works on a next-to-nothing budget. All very creative, to be sure, but imagine what they could do with cash. The so-called free market of traditional Hollywood production and monopoly distribution, ingrained in old ways as they are, has not been kind to them. But on a truly even playing ground, deserving beauty tends to find an audience. Which the Tribeca Films surely will.

So this is something we need more of in the online world: the promotion of new, raw genius to new audiences. And the siphoning back to the producers of that genius of cash. At least small sums of cash. Because who, in this state of love in which I now am, would not want to send five dollars to Mr. Szemzo in Hungry to insure that he produces more such glorious films, and perhaps to buy a spot on his mailing list? If Tribeca and Jaman are promoting international connections and community in this way – not only spreading information and enabling consumption, but also building up sustainable, small-scale economic ties between individuals around the world – they are indeed living up to the ideals upon which the Tribeca Film Festival was founded. Such an effort would indeed be a worthy monument, perhaps the most worthy possible, to the lives of those who have died as a result of global misunderstandings.