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TEDxWarsaw - Alek Tarkowski - 3/05/10

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Hello Warsaw, hello world. My name is Alek Tarkowski and I want to talk about ways of supporting our culture in new times when it's becoming more and more digitized. As you'll see in a moment, you can treat it as a big footnote to the beautiful talk about stories done by Michał Malinowski before. There are many ways of supporting culture, I'll focus on one type, and that's the public cultural institution. But let me start with some context. What you may see here, is a painting by Claud Monet, called: "The Beach at Pourville." Ten years ago it was stolen from the National Museum in Poznań and it reappeared only recently in a private flat of an ordinary man who kept it in a wardrobe only to take it out once in a while and enjoy it. And I think we are all a bit like that man. We want to have access to high quality culture in order to enjoy it. And the funny thing is that today we don't need to steal things, we can download them from the Internet. (laughter, applause) Because the Internet is ultimately a perfect copying machine. That's what it does best, it makes copies and makes them available to all of us. And this leads us to a state of a cultural cornucopia. There's this great cultural horn of plenty that's available to all of us in a digital form. Now, culture has always been abundant, and this is not only due to the Internet. This is also due to the shear size of society, humanity that's creating this culture. But what the Internet changes, of course, is that it's all available all at once. So the question becomes: How to deal with this overflow? Let me give you just some examples. At the last Warsaw Film Festival, a 150 movies were shown in 10 days. Did anyone try to watch them all? In two weeks at the South by Southwest Festival in 4 days, 1000 bands will play, and that's just offline. Go online, go to and try to browse 6 billion photos. So, the traditional response to dealing with culture would be to set up a cultural institution. Museum, theater, opera, movie theater, library, archive and so on. In a way the very interesting time in Warsaw and all over Poland, is the new set of cultural institutions disappearing. This is a picture of the future side of the Modern Art Museum. There's also the Museum of Polish Jews, the Museum of Polish History, Science Center Copernicus, Revamp National Museum, Ethnographic Museum, the list goes on. And these institutions seem to have one single focus currently: Build that building. Now there's nothing wrong with buildings. But they have their limits. This is called "Room A," not a very sexy name, in the National Gallery in London. This room houses 800 paintings, and that's the best the gallery can do to show at least a bit more of its collection. Forget about curatorial designs, forget about aesthetics, they just hang their in rows, and you can watch them once a week. So, what can we do? I was inspired about reading the humanitarian aid to Haiti, and of course there was the traditional response, rescue workers coming in, food, water and shelter flown to the site. But also interesting things were happening online. Internet users can't move rubble, but they can, for instance, make maps. There is a site called which is like Wikipedia for maps. And the community there took its obviously substandard map, that you can see here, of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and in 48 hours made it into a precise map of the city using satellite imagery and the work of volunteers all over the world. They didn't build anything in Haiti, but they made something extremely useful. So, there's a quote from John Perry Barlow which is almost 20 years old, and it used to annoy me a lot with this simple opposition between flesh and mind, but I think he makes a good point, that online we have a sort of a home, a sort of another building. There's another quote I like from one of a bit more surprising theorists of the internet, Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, who observed that if you don't have something in the real world, maybe you can find it in the world of information, the way the Czech did it with the see. There's another interesting Czech concept by a dissident called Vaclav Benda who in 1978 wrote about the Parallelpolis. He wrote that the society should create alternative institutions that will supplement the official ones, because these are inefficient. Not replace them, supplement them in an alternative setting. And I think this idea applies very well to the internet. Cultural institutions should use it to fill in gaps. And the funny thing is, if they do that they will fill those gaps with nothing. With a digital nothing. And because it is nothing, because it is invisible, because you cannot touch it, I think the institutions, sort of, lose it off their radars, and don't appreciate it enought. I tried having an image of nothing. I think I failed. -- That's the nature of nothing, but let me give you one example, we have an institution called the Fryderyk Chopin Institute. There's a 200th anniversary of Chopin's birth, the Institute has a magnificent new building with a wonderful modern exhibition space. But it also has a website, and when you go there, you'd probably want to listen to some music. What happens, the only thing they offer is embeeded YouTube videos. Right? So if we did it the other way around, the institute would create a brilliant set of recordings, make it available online, then in the real world have a tattered tent somewhere in the middle of Warsaw, and then everyone would be outraged. But going back to those institutions, there are ways of waiting for their buildings to be built. I think they're doing pretty well already. This is a furniture store called, Emilia, in which the Museum of Modern Art recently had a design exhibition, because they don't have their own exhibition space. And it worked brilliantly. This is an example that this kind of institutions are already functioning. And I wish that at least one of them was brave enough to think: "Maybe we don't actually need that building." Or at least to keep in mind this time when they were a homeless institution, but functioned very well nevertheless. And in mind that this constraint can actually be productive. This is the current site of this museum. It's a nondescript building. I wish there were some sort of glasses you could put on and see the invisible there: The webpages they have, the web content, the social media they use, and most of all, the communication they start, all the talks about the institution, which already makes them an important object of our collective imagination. So, here's a bit of a theory. John Law, the sociologist of technology describes, how institutions grow. He says that in order to do that they need things that are immutable but mobile, so stable enough to transfer our wishes, but also moving in space where we ourselves can go, and he uses the example of the Portuguese naval empire in the 16th century which did just that. And I think, over the centuries we've all been repeating what the Portuguese done. We're thinking we need objects and places, buildings to grow. But this is no longer true with the Internet which is a completely different intermediary. It is immobile the network itself, the infrastructure doesn't move. It stays put. The information in it travels, and is mutable so the internet adapts to our wishes, and is open to open innovation. So, I don't think we can afford any longer to ignore the internet, and this is a bit what institutions do today. But once they go online, they should take heat of this paraphrased phrase by Cory Doctorow, which says that online institutions are no longer nouns, but verbs. So, this changes the situation. We have to build, think, constuct, not things, but processes. And I think two types of processes are important here, and actually they were discussed today: one is collaboration, and the other is communication, or Michał [Malinowski] would probably call it stories. I should add to this to be fair that a third thing is important, and this is content. And institutions are doing relatively well with putting content online, but please remember that content in itself is a noun. If people don't gather around it, and don't use it, it is dead. So, I'd like to mention four goals that I think institutions should have when they move online, and then point out four tools that could be useful to attain them. The first and probably obvious goal is opennes. This is something I care deeply about. And there will be probably quite a few talks about openness today. Openness is good for many reasons, economic, moral and common sense, but I want to add one more reason, and that is: dealing with the unknown. There's a very interesting quote from a member of the flickr hacker team. When they released the big set of geographic data online, openly, he wrote on his blog: "The reason we're doing it, is because we don't know ourselves, what to do with this data, but we're sure that there's someone in the world, who does know, so we're making it available, so he can find it." And I think this is a rule that applies to all of our culture. The cultural cornucopia is huge, and has huge spaces that we don't know. And we all need to have access to it to find the important bits, to map it, to use it, to make it alive. Tied directly to this is sharing. You cannot have an open culture, if it isn't shared. No-one else will make it available for us, if we don't share it together. The third goal is sustainability. Opennes is not necessarily sustainable. This is a different set of challenges. And this is mainly about finding ways of supporting creators over long time. And related to that is durability. Not durability of content, because we'll probably find good ways soon to archive content, but durability of culture built with this content. And here, what's most important, to have long view of things. Please remember that Wikipedia is only-- less than 10 years old. And YouTube has only, what, 3 or 4 years? Lets try to think what will a 100 year old Wikipedia look like. Or a blog that was written not for a year but for 50 years. Or what will we do with those tweets, that we fire every second, in the longer time span. I think that's a big challenge. So how can we answer these challenges? I think there are many tools to do that. I just want to point out four that I find interesting. First of all, the concept of heritage. It needs a quick update. Usually, when we think of heritage, we think of the cultural cannon. There's a set of things you just need to know, books you need to read, movies you need to watch, but this won't work with the cornucopia, you'd just get stressed like my wife. When we recently watched not a very good movie, she said to me: "Alek, we don't have much time left, we need to watch only good movies." (laughter) So the solution is to thing of heritage as a network of cannons. Each of us can have their own cannon. We can have cannons for small groups. But this won't lead to a fragmented culture. Because it's a network of cannons. They're all connected. They influence each other, we talk about what's important. And that's a good way, I think, to think about the digital culture. Secondly, we need to pay more attention to curation, and not just creation. We need more people who create lists, review things, look at things and decide what is good and bad, write liner notes and create playlists. A playlist is actually a cultural institution on it's own. A museum is a playlist stuck in space and frozen. And mass media are basically playlists selected by one person and fed to the masses. And today we need to make this more democratic. And everyone should feel they're a curator of culture, for themselves, and for others. The third set of tools is craft. By craft I generally understand the ability to do things on your own and on a small scale. And today everyone can craft their own culture. Out of available tools, out of available media, out of available content. Cultural taste is a matter of choice. If you want to live in the culture of the 20's of the 20th century, you can just do that. Watch old movies and listen to blues and jazz. If you want to be on the cutting edge, you can probably find enough music released only today to keep you happy for the whole day. So it's a matter of choice. But as a side note, and I hope I have time to do that, I want to also talk about physical craft, because this is interesting, though a bit on the side. More and more people are turning to doing things with their hands today, because they find out that at the end of the day, after walking around in that sea of information that Hrabal mentioned, they want to do something tangible. And they turn to crafts. And I also think that it's very interesting that you need that physical anchor in your life. And the fourth tool, this is a bit surprising, it's places. So here my story makes a loop. But the places I'm talking about, they are new type of places, new type of spaces. When you went to a traditional, or go to a traditional institution, you're passive. You go there to view, you go there to listen. In the new spaces, you're a maker. There are many types of places like that. Co-working spaces, media labs, hackerspaces. This is one of them in Brooklyn, in the United States. And they're completely different. They're small, they're hectic, they're crowded, because it turns out, these are good conditions for being active and creative. So to sum up: what does this mean to the cultural institutions? I think they should take to heart that the idea of Parallelpolis, and think of themselves as fluctuations, between the analogue world and the digital one. Because, as you can see, without one you are dead, but without the other: you are not alive, as Christopher Adams very nicely said. And the question then is, what we can all do. I think we need to stop being passive, and to quote a classic, "we need to get excited and make things." Thank you. (applause) (Ralph Talmont:) Now I have probably too many questions. So maybe we'll-- (Alek Tarkowski:) We have time just for one. So, we'll break TED rules, hey, we make it up as we go along. Culture is a flexible thing, right? (AT:) True. (RT:) And we'll take one question from the audience. One question today to Alek. (AT:) You'll have to do it yourself. (RT:) I can't believe it, come on, 376 people. Hey, Noam. (Noam Kostucki:) My question would be, what's the most valued piece of culture, that you think, should be shared by a room like this? (AT:) I don't think there's a single one, and that's the beauty of it. You know? Decide what's important for yourself and tell it to your neighbour, and that's good. And it might be the drawing you just made during breakfast, you know? (RT:) Awesome, awesome. Thank you. (AT:) Thank you very much. (applause)

Video Details

Duration: 15 minutes and 3 seconds
Country: Poland
Language: English
Genre: None
Producer: TEDxWarsaw
Director: TEDxWarsaw
Views: 111
Posted by: tedxwarsaw on Mar 15, 2010

Alek Tarkowski is a sociologist working at the Interdisciplinary Centre for Computational and Mathematical Modelling at the University of Warsaw. He is the Public Lead of Creative Commons Poland and has served the Board of Strategic Advisors to the Prime Minister of Poland.

Alek's talk deals with the need to develop new ways of coping with what he terms "cultural cornucopia".

In the spirit of ideas worth spreading, TEDx is a program of local, self-organized events. These events are branded TEDx, where x=independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized.*
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Category: Science & Technology

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