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Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

by on March 15, 2012


Phillip Dick’s 1974 novel with this title is one of best treatments of the blurring line between man and machine. You may know it from the film based on the novel, Blade Runner. When machines are indistinguishable from humans, Dick asks, what does it mean to be a machine or a human. I have always been fascinated by the question of perception versus reality – Rashomon, Escher, where are my keys?

Electric Sheep

CC Image "Electric Sheep" courtesy of Infidelic on Flickr

In the world of digital documents, you might ask do we really need brick and mortar museums? Not quite the same as man and machine, but it is a question of digital versus “the real thing” and a topic that must be discussed among archivists today.

Someone once said to me that in twenty years the National Archives will be just one big museum. Research will be done online and documents stored in the suburbs where warehouse costs are lower. Perhaps it is the other way around.

Technology has long been able to create images that were indistinguishable from the original. We have on display in the Public Vaults a copy of the Emancipation Proclamation that is disturbingly difficult to distinguish from the real document. Our specialists routinely make copies of important documents that take an expert to discern from the original.

Today, technology has the ability to make documents better than real. We already use some of these techniques in the Public Vault. Visitors can touch a screen and magically the German text is translated into English. Scholars at the University of Illinois are developing a search engine that will that will read cursive. No longer will we need to lament that they no longer teach cursive in schools or that young children stand before the Constitution saying, “I wish I could read that.” Instead the words will appear before them.

One of my favorite documents is the Bill of Rights as marked up by the Senate. The House sent seventeen articles to the Senate, and the Senators literally marked up the bill, crossing things out and writing in the margin. The handwriting is thought to be by John Adams, and it is very hard to read. Imagine in a digital world when you touched the marginalia you heard John Adams voice speaking the words, and in the background another Senator explained why they changed the language of the House.

In her recent book, Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explores how the new world of constant communication has changed the way we interact. Young people would rather text than talk. Talking on the phone exposes a vulnerability that is uncomfortable, they explain. I often get frustrated by the back and forth of repeated emails and pick up the phone.

Sherry Turkle reports that several young people she interviewed saw no advantage to having a real pet over a mechanical one. The mechanical pet, in fact, gave them more pleasure. The Disney folks report that they often get complaints about the live alligators because they don’t act real enough.

Perhaps the future of archives is that we shut the doors of the museum that cannot compete with the digital world. The building is left for those interested in pawing through the boxes of documents much like it was in 1935, documents that no one will pay to scan.

 


Comments

Maarja Krusten March 16, 2012 at 5:33 am

A beautiful post, really made me think. As did the movies you mentioned—Rashomon, Blade Runner (an adaptation of the Philip Dick novel, which I also enjoyed).

I know first hand NARA’s ability to produce high quality facsimiles. I’m about to use in a physical exhibit a facsimile of a law that Sam Anthony brought over last summer. A great reproduction that will draw the eye of viewers. The rest will be a mix of copies of photos (some from NARA’s holdings) and artifacts. Seeing the physical objects I am putting in the display case really gives me a sense of the past. I like that physical link to days gone by. I think it is because I am somewhat tactile, as all the many NARA friends, (some former colleagues) whom I greet with hugs know well!

Which is to say, there is no one size fits all solution to getting the combination of people and technology right. We’re all a little different! Age, temperament, past experiences, all influence our preferences. I like NARA’s approach to public outreach and exhibits. It shows a lot of thoughtful consideration of how people react and engage. Not unlike what David Ferriero once said in an interview about tailoring workplace rewards and recognition systems to individuals, taking into account perceived and different needs for the means of expressed appreciation. Prescriptive approaches don’t work as well as thoughtful ones.

Thanks for mentioning Sherry Turkle’s book. I like writing and I sometimes am uncomfortable making “cold calls” to people I don’t know. Email suits me better sometimes. Yet I know that when I’ve had misunderstandings with people, it most often has occurred as a result of having a textual relationship, only. That’s what makes listserv postings and exchanges of comments in comboxes tricky at times.

There’s a lot to be learned from tone of voice! I’ve always said that transcriptions of those Nixon tapes with which I once worked as a NARA employee need to be used with care. No way to capture tone. Just think of the difference in meaning in emphasis in our own workplaces conveyed by “I don’t want to work WITH her” (which simply can indicate a general preference to handle an assignment alone) and “I don’t want to work with HER” (possible negative attitude towards a particular person).

Best of all are direct face to face interactions, especially if you want to actively listen, not just express your own views. You can read unarticulated reactions (in body language and at times in facial expressions) in ways not possible in exchanges of email and texts. Much better opportunities for just-in-time course correction, when you can visibly tell you’ve crossed a line or pushed something too far or simply failed to express your point! (How do you develop that ability and willingness to adjust to the other person’s comfort zone or self-correct, which comes over time although is more innate in some than others, if most of your interactions are textual, anyway?) Yes, doing it does challenge my comfort zone sometimes. But I like and need that, actualy. And it’s something I’ve learned to watch out for, with family, friends and colleagues. All of whom fortunately are human, not androids!

Zussblatt March 16, 2012 at 12:03 pm

The novel was published in 1968.

Zussblatt March 16, 2012 at 12:10 pm

The 100th episode of the Twilight Zone, written by Ray Bradbury, “I Sing the Body Electric” is another great example of blurring of person and android.

Jilly March 20, 2012 at 11:11 am

This is an interesting point of view and no matter what we think of man and machines, progress will not ask us – it just happens and we’d better get used to it…

Rob Spindler April 3, 2012 at 12:57 pm

It’s a thoughtful piece that represents an increasingly important issue about the tension between the stresses of face to face contact and our need to have social interaction. My kids get bored of gaming after a while and they desire conversation, although they can be shy about it. A Pew Internet Life study couple years ago noted how pre-teens use social media to arrange meetups. An interesting twist on this has to do with association and membership. I suggested to our local historical society that they do away with membership (and its overhead) and become an event driven organization. I think people want interaction but they seem less likely to make commitment. The analogy for museums would be that patrons want to drop in now and then (especially for the “new” like exhibit openings) but don’t want static obligations like membership dues. People want choices that reflect the ebbs and flows of their lives….

Costanza Caraffa April 4, 2012 at 12:43 pm

In the Art Journal of 1868 photo carbon prints by Adolphe Braun reproducing master drawings by Michelangelo and Leonardo were described as „so faithfully as to render it impossible to distinguish the print from the original drawing“. For a long time the same photographs are no more usable for art historians looking for good, ‘faithful’ reproductions of works of art. A technology that was welcomed as the non plus ultra since it was “able to create images that were indistinguishable from the original” and had “the ability to make documents better than real” (here I quote McMillen) is for a long time outdated. Every technology is connected with its own time. What will men and women of the future think about our poor, miserable digital reproductions of today?
On the other side, photographs like the Braun carbon prints are in the meanwhile documents for other kinds of research enquiries. What is more important: they are material objects that can be reproduced with different techniques (nowadays in high digital resolution), but NOT replaced by their even most perfect reproductions.
This is one of the statements of the “Florence Declaration – Recommendations for the Preservation of Analogue Photo Archives”, which pleas for the INTEGRATION of digital and analogue format (against the approach “digital versus analogue”). You can read (and sign!) the Florence Declaration on http://www.khi.fi.it/en/photothek/florencedeclaration/index.html. Here some of the main statements, that are valid of course not only for photographs but for any other kind of documents and archival materials:
- the technologies not only condition the methods of transmission, conservation and enjoyment of the documents, but they also shape its content
- the photographs are not simply images independent from their mount, but rather objects endowed with materiality that exist in time and space
- an analogue photograph and its digital reproduction are two distinct objects and they are not interchangeable
- the consultation of an analogue photograph is a different experience to the consultation of its digital reproduction in a database
- the photographic object is characterized by tactile aspects that are indispensable for reconstructing essential moments of its biography
- if internet access is ideally independent of place and time, it is also limited to a single component of the photographic object: the image, the visual aspect
- for research purposes it is not enough to guarantee access to single analogue photographs; it is the photo archive as a whole, with its structures and functiones, that must be preserved as a place and also the object of scholarly investigations
- selection is implied in the nature of the archive, but the reduction is irreversible if after digitization the analogue archive is removed, with its complexity, from free consultation
- digitization offers new paths of interpretation, but it precludes others; it promotes new ways of conducting research, but hinders others. Digital photo archives generate different research questions then analogue photo archives
- only integration between the analogue format and the digital format can guarantee the correct conservation of the photographic heritage for future studies and at the same time the implementation of digital instruments

Costanza Caraffa April 7, 2012 at 12:26 pm

In the Art Journal of 1868 photo carbon prints by Adolphe Braun reproducing master drawings by Michelangelo and Leonardo were described as „so faithfully as to render it impossible to distinguish the print from the original drawing“. For a long time the same photographs are no more usable for art historians looking for good, ‘faithful’ reproductions of works of art. A technology that was welcomed as the non plus ultra since it was “able to create images that were indistinguishable from the original” and had “the ability to make documents better than real” (here I quote McMillen) is for a long time outdated. Every technology is connected with its own time. What will men and women of the future think about our poor, miserable digital reproductions of today?
On the other side, photographs like the Braun carbon prints are in the meanwhile documents for other kinds of research enquiries. What is more important: they are material objects that can be reproduced with different techniques (nowadays in high digital resolution), but NOT replaced by their even most perfect reproductions.
This is one of the statements of the “Florence Declaration – Recommendations for the Preservation of Analogue Photo Archives”, which pleas for the INTEGRATION of digital and analogue format (against the approach “digital versus analogue”). You can read (and sign!) the Florence Declaration on http://www.khi.fi.it/en/photothek/florencedeclaration/index.html. Here some of the main statements, that are valid of course not only for photographs but for any other kind of documents and archival materials:
– the technologies not only condition the methods of transmission, conservation and enjoyment of the documents, but they also shape its content
– the photographs are not simply images independent from their mount, but rather objects endowed with materiality that exist in time and space
– an analogue photograph and its digital reproduction are two distinct objects and they are not interchangeable
– the consultation of an analogue photograph is a different experience to the consultation of its digital reproduction in a database
– the photographic object is characterized by tactile aspects that are indispensable for reconstructing essential moments of its biography
– if internet access is ideally independent of place and time, it is also limited to a single component of the photographic object: the image, the visual aspect
– for research purposes it is not enough to guarantee access to single analogue photographs; it is the photo archive as a whole, with its structures and functiones, that must be preserved as a place and also the object of scholarly investigations
- selection is implied in the nature of the archive, but the reduction is irreversible if after digitization the analogue archive is removed, with its complexity, from free consultation
– digitization offers new paths of interpretation, but it precludes others; it promotes new ways of conducting research, but hinders others. Digital photo archives generate different research questions then analogue photo archives
– only integration between the analogue format and the digital format can guarantee the correct conservation of the photographic heritage for future studies and at the same time the implementation of digital instruments.

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