Disrecognized Space

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Curation: An essential online performative skill

As the amount of digital information in the world grows, curation of this data becomes increasingly necessary. Digital curation has democratized a previously professional skill, having become a task all online users undertake, and which also forms a central part of identity performance online. While automatic tools are available to assist in this process human intervention is necessary in order to give meaning to curating disparate objects. Lacking awareness of this, machine curation could theoretically limit a person’s online experience and expression. Recognition of curation’s necessity, a reflexive understanding of how it embodies identity across sites and time, and its interactions with digital ecosystems has become an essential online skill in order to create nuanced and critical online selves.

In a digital world the amount of available information grows at a confounding speed. Shirky (2008) comments that information overload has existed since at least the invention of the printing press: the problem of the online world is not the explosion of information, but one of having effective filters. This, however, ignores to an extent the fundamentally different nature of the internet: not only has information increased to a massive extent (Berners-Lee (2014) recently noted websites have passed the one billion mark), but all of it is potentially available at once. Shirky (2014) has, however, elsewhere acknowledged the internet’s blurring of previous cultural rules and the different nature of internet information. This is an order of magnitude different from pre-internet information overload. It is not just a question of too many books to read since digital information covers the whole spectrum of human expression: images, texts, video, music and data (Ray, 2009, p. 358). Shirky (2008) argues that we now need new filters along with new social norms to effectively engage with this digital world. Another word for these filters is curation.

Curation increases the understanding of objects and brings order to information overload. Rosenbaum (2011, p. 2) observes that the result of good curation is “context, meaning and knowledge” leading to a “special aura of knowledge and experience”. Curation is thus an activity that places objects into a meaningful relationship to an audience. Without this “aura” curation devolves into an aggregation without context (Rosenbaum, 2011, p, 4). Curation is the process of shaping knowledge about objects, rather than simply aggregating the objects themselves (Rotman, Procita, Hansen, Parr and Preece, 2012, p. 1093). Curation is essential to bring meaning to digital objects dispersed through the internet.

Curation does not, however, occur in isolation, but within the structures of the internet. Nardi and O’Day (1999, para. 25) conceptualise these structures as information ecologies, localized collections of relationships between people, technological tools, and how those tools are used. They identify a number of factors distinguishing information ecologies: they are local, diverse systems; they are subject to constraints and possibilities and thus ‘evolve’; and they contain keystone species, particularly mediators between systems who are technologically skilled. While their claim that communities (as opposed to ecologies) are homogenous is arguable, the systems concept does bring to the fore the need to recognize the multiconnected relationships that make up ‘local’ internets and their connections to other such ecologies and, especially, the need for skilled human mediators to keep such systems alive and functioning. Their analogy tends towards Actor Network Theory, though their privileging of humans as a ‘keystone species’ can be seen as limiting considering the variety of nodes in the network. Day (2012, p. 62) stresses that both curation and cyberinfrastructure are codependently linked, while Willson (2014, p. 226) observes that though decisions can be delegated to technology, this has political implications. Curation thus operates within the constraints and affordances of information ecologies and cyberinfrastructures when bringing meaning to collections.

Digital curation as a concept is relatively new, and researchers provide varying descriptions of it in different contexts – curating an online museum site is different from curating a social media presence. Much of the literature deals with a straight transfer of traditional institutional curation to an online format, rather than considering the different nature of digital curation. Ray (2012, pp. 604-605) comments that the meaning of curation has been altered by digital media, encompassing traditional curation as well as sites such as Pinterest. She stresses, however, the human role of curation. Most definitions emphasise that digital curation is not just collecting or displaying, but in some way adds value or meaning, often as a process over time (Madrid, 2013, p. 151), something Ray (2099, p. 360) also describes in her definition of digital curation as ongoing, from the creation of an object to a possible future use. This curatorial process inevitably expresses the curator’s identity.

Online curation requires specific skills, and operates differently from institutional curation. Thibodeau (quoted in Day, 2007, p. 107) gives a list of competencies for digital curation as a professional role which recognizes applying new technology to digital sources subject to change over time. Rheingold (2012, pp. 129-130) offers two other lists of curatorial skills: both providing different ways of considering how curators reorder information, add value through methods such as comments or tagging, and disseminate this new information. Indeed, Rheingold (2012, p. 133) sees tagging as a fundamental function for organizing knowledge online. Tagging, and other added metadata, creates an ‘enhanced copy’, increasing the value of the digital object (Marshall, 2011, p. 107). In a digital world, objects can also easily be arranged in multiple categories (Feinberg, 2011, p. 119). Physical objects can only be stored in one location but, as Bush (1996, p. 43) remarked in 1945, the human mind works by associations, it creates links and trails. Digital curation realizes Bush’s vision, allowing multiple co-existing ‘trails’ (or stories) to be laid across digital objects.

Curation is inextricably linked to identity: what is emphasized, what is ignored, what constraints are placed on it, what order it is given, all function as means of performing identity constructions. As Durrant, Frohlich, Sellen and Lyons (2009, p. 1011) note in the context of family photographs, curation mediates self-expression. What we curate, and what we choose to display of this curation, provides knowledge about ourselves, to make us more secure about who we are (Cox, 2009, p. 106). Curation online cannot be performed without also performing identity.

Identity is significant because, in a networked world, curation is no longer a privileged function, but has become democratized (Rosenbaum, 2011, p. 17). Power has shifted from professional editors or librarians: we are all curators online (Flintoff, Mellow and Clark, 2014, para. 2). Online curation is also, increasingly, collaborative (Flintoff, Mellow and Clark, 2014, para. 24). Mihailidis and Cohen (2013, p. 5) describe curation as a way to analytically make metanarrational stories from the internet that can be reflective as well as shared. Curation, they state, is thus a core digital competency. Curation can also engender a sense of responsibility in the story creator by crafting a coherent narrative (Cohen and Mihailidis, 2012, p. 28). These are all ways of expressing identity in digital formats. In a similar manner, Jacobson (2012, p. 2) defines curation as a creative act. Rather than working with scarce objects (which museum curators might) digital curators have a wealth of resources. Online curation is a form of identity creation, a public display, that draws together both self-created objects (such as photographs) and those created by others. Identities are integrated into digital curation.

Digital curation forms a major basis of identity expression. Online curation mediates experiences (including the experience of the self) (Quaan-Haase and Martin, 2013, p. 529). This occurs equally whether curation is performed by a machine or a human (or a human/machine synthesis). Curation (especially, but not only, machine curation) can, however, limit identities online by restricting information. Sutton (2014) alone lists forty-seven curation tools, ranging from online spaces to gather material together, to sites that sort and push information automatically, and whose methods are more opaque. Filtering can be an active seeking of information, or a passive reception of information (Willson, 2014, p. 222). Digital natives, paradoxically, may be at home with new technology but often remain unaware of the role and skills of digital curation (Yakel, Conway, Hedstrom and Wallace, 2011, p. 23). This raises questions of what happens when curation is an automatic or neglected process.

Allowing machines to curate for us is easy, but relinquishes power and control Helmond (2010, p. 5) questions what it means to allow Google or other machine algorithms to shape the audience. Google results are personalised to the user, so that two users searching for the same information can get different results, while Facebook similarly adjusts what different users see (Bozdag, 2013, p. 211). Storify privileges ‘verified’ sources in its search results (Cohen and Mihailidis, 2012, p. 29). Such methods inherently contain the biases of the original human creators of the algorithms, operating through website code (Bozdag, 2013, p. 217), potentially creating a lack of information diversity (Bozdag, 2013, p. 220). Care is required in developing such algorithms if they are not to be limiting (Dandekar, Goel and Lee, 2013, pp. 5795-5796). If the software feeds back what the searcher has consumed from previously restricted offerings this can become self-reinforcing (Helmond, 2010, p. 12). Identity is mediated through this invisible code especially when we remain unaware of it (Helmond, 2010, p. 15). Automatic curation is easy, but can apply ‘blinders’ to what we see (Gibney, 2014, p. 130). Relying solely on algorithms and code thus shifts power to those who hold our data, making us more passive in what we see online (Pariser, 2011, p. 6). New methods of curating digital information come with their own limitations and restrictions which need to be negotiated (Beaulieu, De Rijcke and Van Heur, 2013, p.50). Rather than fully expressing identity, automatic curation can potentially lead to algorithms determining our identities for us. Such delegation makes the audience passive consumers rather than active shapers of information.

Some critics have raised the issue of ‘echo chambers’ as a growing concern onine. While relying on algorithms relinquishes control, even with a human presence the multiple articulations afforded by online curation can, as Danzico (2010, p. 18) cautions, invisibly exclude any unwanted news or information that might challenge the audience’s preconceptions. There are many sites that allow users to collect information that reflects their interests (and, by implication, represent a portrayal of their identities) but this information may or may not be accurate or truthful (Mihailidis and Cohen, 2013, p. 4). The effect of creating such ‘echo chambers’ may be exaggerated, however. Garrett (2009, p. 279) finds that, while people use the internet to reinforce political views, they also engage with challenging information as well, even if only to reinforce their views. Nonetheless, it is a problem that needs recognition in order to avoid it.

Some sites automate the processes of curation while allowing more active choice from the user in making selections, striking a compromise between passive and active curation. Sites such as Storify allow the gathering of objects into personal stories – narratives that reflect the creators (Carrigan, 2012, p. 1). As noted above, however, these sites can still contain implicit, unstated biases even when seeming more open. The nature of the site(s) chosen to host a user’s curation(s) also changes the environment in which it is displayed, through such factors as layout, personalization, social norms, and links to other users (Thurlow and Jaworski, 2011, pp. 223-224). Feinberg (2011, p. 123) urges us to relish this opportunity to utilize different organizational systems than the ones we might otherwise unthinkingly favour. Rather than letting machines alone do the curating, users can create more nuanced selves by actively engaging with their curatorial activities.

Digital curation is a relatively new, and still fluid, concept. It is nonetheless clear that it is a function that everyone online performs whether they are aware of it or not. Curation has transformed from a specialized skill of a few professionals, to a fundamental way we organize and display information online and, by implication, display ourselves. This performative identity function of curation is deeply embedded in our cybernavigations and it is therefore important that users are conscious of this aspect, and develop their curatorial skills so that they become aware of how they simultaneously express and filter their identities online, as well as adding meaning and value to the objects they curate. An essential part of this performative act is negotiating how different tools and sites, and the digital ecosystems they function within, can enhance or limit curatorial possibilities. Such negotiation maximizes opportunities to create nuanced, critical online identities that expand online presences rather than limit them.


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Being human

Once portrayed as ugly, clumsy ape-men, Neanderthals were in fact culturally advanced close relatives of Homo sapiens. And their legacy lives on among us…


Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis skulls. Not so different? (Source: original from Wikimedia)


Knowing where we have come from gives us a better understanding of who we are. The story of human evolution was, until fairly recently, thought of as an almost unbroken progression of gradually improving species until its fulfillment in that paragon of animals, modern humans (Homo sapiens). That narrative has been overthrown by recent fossil discoveries and other research which shows that we are actually just the only surviving hominin species of what is a complicated and multibranched evolutionary tree.

Amongst all these recent advances, the story of our understanding of Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) in particular gives us a clear example of how paleoanthropology has changed the way we view the past, setting us on new shores of ways of looking at ourselves and our future.

Evolving images
First recognized from a discovery in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856, Neanderthals were initially thought to be brutish, clumsy apemen, and this prejudice persists in the common imagination today when someone is referred to as a “Neanderthal”. Yet our increasing knowledge reveals a far different picture: Neanderthals were a singularly successful, intelligent, and robust species which managed to survive from around 350,000 to 40,000 years ago, in multiple ice age environments, far longer than the span of time that Homo sapiens has existed.


Putting flesh on the bones

Neanderthal skeleton. Isolated in a glass case, devoid of a cultural and social context (Source: SmugMug)
Neanderthals and modern humans both evolved from a common ancestor. Neaderthals were stocky, somewhat shorter than modern humans, with a prominent brow ridge, and a brain capacity slightly larger than humans today. Placed among modern humans, Neanderthals would be unlikely to stand out as dramatically different. Putting flesh on their bones allows us to see these cousins in a more familiar light, rather than the disembodied skeletons put on display in museums.


(Source: YouTube)


Real humans
Recent discoveries have allowed us to form a fuller idea of Neanderthal life, apart from simply reassessing their physical appearance, showing that they had a rich cultural world.


They used fire and stone tools:
Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, says that 20 years ago, he believed that if the Neanderthals made the Châtelperronian ornaments, they were blindly imitating modern humans. “Our interpretation was that they were copying but that they didn’t have the brainpower to give full value” to the objects. He wouldn’t say so now. Two decades of discoveries of sophisticated Neanderthal tools and weapons have made him think that “the gulf was not as great”: that the difference between Neanderthals and ourselves was a matter more of culture than of ability.
Source: Nature


They cared for their disabled, and buried their dead:
It is of course impossible to know exactly what thoughts lay behind this act [of burial]. If the Neanderthals just wanted to dispose of the body, then leaving him out in the open for the carnivores to do their job would have been simple. But instead they dug this pit, worked to remove a large quantity of sediment, and placed the body in it. They spent a long time doing something that was not essential for their life or survival: they just wanted to protect the body of this old man.

Furthermore, the care of his clan and their attentions for him can be seen in the last of his life, as well in death. At the ripe old age of 40-50 years old, the Old Man of La Chapelle (as he is known) suffered from osteoarthritis that left him stooped and bent, had hip problems and had lost almost all his teeth. He probably had trouble moving by himself, and was certainly useless for most group activities. But his group continued to feed him. They cared not only for his body in death, but also in life.

These discoveries confirm the existence of burial among European Neanderthals, and of their cognitive capacity to do so. But more, our findings also sustain the image of a very human group, with empathy for others, behaviour that shrinks still further the distance between them and us.
Source: The Conversation


Neanderthals - National Museum of Natural History - Washington DC - USA
Diorama depicting a Neanderthal burial (Source: Flickr)


They made jewellery, and used feathers as a decorative practice:
This is not the first time scientists have found evidence that Neandertals used feathers. In 2011 a team of Italian researchers reported on cutmarked bird bones from Neandertal levels in Fumane Cave in northern Italy that revealed this practice. But some researchers dismissed the find as an isolated phenomenon. The new findings suggest that feathers were de rigueur for thousands of years not only among Gibraltar’s Neandertals but quite possibly for Neandertals across Eurasia.
Source: Scientific American


Neanderthals quite probably had language. They certainly had the physical ability to speak:
An analysis of a Neanderthal’s fossilised hyoid bone – a horseshoe-shaped structure in the neck – suggests the species had the ability to speak. This has been suspected since the 1989 discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid that looks just like a modern human’s. But now computer modelling of how it works has shown this bone was also used in a very similar way. Writing in journal Plos One, scientists say its study is “highly suggestive” of complex speech in Neanderthals.
Source: BBC News


They also had a spatial awareness capacity:
“This is ongoing work, but the big picture in this study is that we have one more example that Neanderthals used some kind of logic for organizing their living sites,” Riel-Salvatore said. “This is still more evidence that they were more sophisticated than many have given them credit for. If we are going to identify modern human behavior on the basis of organized spatial patterns, then you have to extend it to Neanderthals as well.”
Source: Science Daily


The recent discovery of a 40,000 year old deliberate stone etching (which may or may not be “art”) raises further questions of their cognitive abilities:

“This behaviour was considered exclusive to modern humans and has been used as an argument to distinguish our direct ancestors from ancient man, including Neanderthals.”

The discovery is “a major contribution to the redefinition of our perception of Neanderthal culture”, prehistorian William Rendu, of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told the Wall Street Journal. “It is new and even stronger evidence of the Neanderthal capacity for developing complex symbolic thought.”
Source: The Guardian


While there is still dispute about what all these discoveries mean, and what copying (if any) occurred between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, all these traits provide strong evidence that Neanderthals had a complex culture and were capable of symbolic thought. Just like us.


Genetic insights
Perhaps the most dramatic advance in our understanding of Neanderthals has been the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome. The exact places and times that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens co-existed is under dispute, but recent findings put the period around 2,600 to 5,400 years in length. Indeed, throughout human evolution we now know that multiple human species existed at many times, and our current singularity is an anomaly. Non-African modern humans have been found to carry around 1% to 4% Neanderthal genes, the result of interbreeding in the past.


In 2010, Svante Pääbo’s lab announced a draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome. This new study has produced evidence consistent with interbreeding between Neanderthals and anatomically modern Homo sapiens and points to aspects of the human genome that may have changed since the split between humans and Neanderthals.
Source: Smithsonian


This genetic inheritance has dramatically altered not just our view of our ancestors, but ourselves.


“Many traits that distinguish humans from chimps are believed to have evolved more recently than the human–Neanderthal split,” observes biostatistician Katherine S. Pollard of the Gladstone Institutes at the University of California, San Francisco. “A Neanderthal genome is a very important step towards determining the genetic basis for these characteristics that define the modern human species.”
Source: Scientific American


John Hawks, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, told BBC News: “They’re us. We’re them.
Source: BBC News


No longer alone
Rather than the exceptionalist view of modern humans as uniquely different and superior creatures, we are now forced to confront more directly and with greater nuance the question of what makes us human. The previous, easy, answers are no longer sufficient.


Roebroeks and his colleague, Dr Paola Villa at the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, trawled through the archaeological records to look for evidence of modern human superiority that underpinned nearly a dozen theories about the Neanderthals’ demise and found that none of them stood up.

“The explanations make good stories, but the only problem is that there is no archaeology to back them up,” said Roebroeks.

Villa said part of the misunderstanding had arisen because researchers compared Neanderthals with their successors, the modern humans who lived in the Upper Palaeolithic, rather than the humans who lived at the same time. That is like saying people in the 19th century were less intelligent than those in the 21st because they didn’t have laptops and space travel.
Source: The Guardian


Understanding where we came from helps us to understand how we became who we are today as modern humans, as well as what “being human” means. It can help us to navigate the new shores of challenges facing us, such as climate change (which may have been one factor in the demise of Neanderthals) by knowing our limitations and our capabilities. Neanderthals were adept and successful as a species yet, while they became extinct, Homo sapiens flourished. Learning about our past can help us to address the fragility of our own existence, and, perhaps, learn to exist within our own world rather than blindly walking to extinction. We may be the first species to be self-aware that we are overusing resources and destroying our environment, but will we be the first species to do something about it, or will we too become extinct? As we literally encounter new shores due to sea level rise will we be wiser than the Neanderthals?

As a constant reminder of these questions, the Neanderthals have left us a genetic reminder of the time we existed together, of our differences, but also of our many similarities. It is a legacy we are only just beginning to explore.

Remember, you, and that person sitting next to you on the bus, are probably part-Neanderthal. We may not be so different.

A human face: Neanderthal skull with genetic code behind it (Source: original image from Wikimedia, genetic code from The Neandertal Genome)