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Culture Online? — A Vision for the Knowledge Society

Contribution to the international conference "Building Excellence", November 2004 in Brussels
Jürgen Renn, MPIWG

Ladies and gentlemen,
this short presentation is dedicated to the future of the web as the backbone of the information society.
Whether the information society will actually become a knowledge society will, in my view, very much depend on the role of culture in the medium of the future, the Internet.
As you know, major efforts are presently undertaken in order to create open access to scientific knowledge online. The Max Planck Society has taken up this challenge and has, together with its international partners, launched the Berlin declaration in favor of open access, a declaration that has met with an overwhelmingly broad and positive resonance, also at the level of the world summit for the information society.
But what about culture – is culture online? The Berlin declaration is the first international declaration which points out that an equal if not larger challenge exists for making cultural heritage accessible online.
This rise of awareness was made possible due to an initiative sponsored by the European Community, the European Cultural Heritage Online, or in short, the ECHO initiative. ECHO has proven that an open-access policy is able to make a dramatic difference in the availability of culture on the web. Its results and the vision I am going to propose for the future are summarized in a short flyer we have brought for you.
Within its 18-months pilot phase, ECHO has succeeded in making openly accessible on the Web more than half a million webpages with cultural content, including more than 60 000 high-resolution images, more than 50 000 texts, and 9 multilingual dictionaries coupled with sophisticated language technology. Although the ECHO website is at present the largest site within the Max Planck Society, and one of the most frequented reference sites for cultural heritage world wide, it can only be considered a drop in the bucket.
It was realized with modest means and against structural problems imposed by European funding within the past framework programs, favoring technical developments over the creation of a critical mass of data.
When looking at the future, ECHO confronts us with an alternative similar to the human genom project after the first feasibility tests: now just get it all done because it is doable or continue wavering and defer it to a distant future.
Actually, there is also a major difference: whereas in the genom project we had the alternative of a public and a commercial venture, no such alternative is in sight with regard to making cultural heritage available online.
Before I come to this challenge, which is a challenge both of basic research and of overcoming the digital divide, allow me a few remarks on where we stand today.
Although the preservation of cultural heritage is a burning problem in view of wars, natural catastrophies, and dwindling public funds, the transfer of culture to the digital medium is still only hesitantly taken up. Yes, virtual observatories of astronomy are successfully being created - but where are the virtual Pompeji, the virtual gallery of Renaissance art, the virtual dictionary of European philosophy, the virtual archive of social history, the virtual library of mental models of scientific knowledge, the virtual silk road of the common cultural heritage of East and West, or, to pose a more simple-minded question: where is an interactive, online translation environment for all of the major European languages, let alone for the Europe of the 25 plus?
What is lacking are both a critical mass of content and adequate, flexible interfaces allowing a multiplicity of follow-up usages of the content available on the web, from scholarly via industrial to touristic purposes.
We are still not in a situation in which national support structures alone are able to garantuee a constant flow of cultural content from the old into the new medium, realized in such a way that the potential of the new medium with regard to interactivity and connectivity is adequately exploited.
Why is this so?
When considering the present crisis, we should not forget that the web itself is a rather uncertain place. Its stability is more similar to that of the library of Alexandria than to that of the modern library system.
Many projects have been created – also with the support of the European Community– that have left us with nothing but dead links or proprietory information.
Whether the web will remain an essentially public space or degenerate into a technical platform without a stable infrastructure and commonly accepted open standards of communication is perhaps the most challenging question about the future of the knowledge society.
As far as its use as a medium of communication and collaboration in the domain of science and culture is concerned, there is indeed as yet hardly any garantuee for the longevity of the contents made available online.
The strength of the web as a medium of the future will crucially depend on such longevity. It will, however, also depend on whether the contents that are produced or preserved with public funds will be openly accessible or whether the access to these knowledge resources will be artifially blocked to the disadvantage of both the public and the economy.
In short, the web is a new continent that at present is being settled in a goldrush-like manner, rather than by creating an adequate infrastructure for basic science and culture, including the instruments for working with their contents in a way that is interactive and contributes to the transparency of the web at large.
I am convinced that the future of the web, for instance the overcoming of the client-server asymetry, will be determined also by innovative usage scenarios, just as it was the case when the web itself was created turning the Internet from a network of computers into a global hypertext.
Such innovative usage scenarios could come also from the domain of cultural heritage and from the humanities studying it which are, after all, concerned with what is perhaps most lacking in the web today: meaning.
It is here and now that we could change this pernicious development, if we adopt the vision of what I have called a future web of science and culture, a web in which science and culture are accessible without walls.
In such a future web it will be possible to create new cultural spaces in the sense explained in the beginning, that is, by creating a synthesis of past heritage with the questions of today in order to improve the conditions of mankind and in order to answer the ancient questions from where do we come and where do we go.
Due to the availability of a seamless language technology, as we have begun to realize it within ECHO, it will be possible to overcome traditional cultural divides, for instance by consulting the views of Greek and Chinese philosophers about the universe or about the origin of species and compare their reflections with those of Renaissance scientists and the results of modern science.
Culture has always been and will always be not a creation from nothing but an ever new composition of the heritage of the past with the challenges of our future.
The new media have immensely increased the power of composing culture.
It is in our hands whether this potential can be unfolded or whether it will remain blocked by the lack of content or the erection of artificial boundaries which impede the composition of culture.
In order to optimize the new media for the vision of a future web of science and culture, we need to pursue the open-access strategy not only for science but also for cultural heritage which ultimately constitutes, after all, a common good of mankind.
But we also need to create seed collections that will help to civilize an otherwise chaotic information landscape by creating a reliable knowledge ontology.
Seed collections are what we propose as an alternative to the traditional digital libraries which tend to remain island solutions, often rapidly disappearing from the web as we have seen. Seed collections represent not only substantial collections of cultural content but they come equipped with an infrastructure allowing for their extension in a self-organizing manner, just as it has been demonstrated to work for the more than 30 seed collections of the ECHO initiative.
With the help of the center for information management of the Max Planck Society, we are just in the process of stabilizing this extensible and self-organizing infrastructure for the Agora of producers and users of culture heritage we have created under the ECHO umbrella.
The extent to which this will lead to a transformation of the present web into a web of science and culture will depend on the suppport we and projects following similar aims will receive in the future from the European Community.
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