Bots!

What does it mean to collect and exhibit/present/interpret digital objects? This week we explore this issue across new media art, source code, and digitized materials. The two readings that illustrate this are Museumbots: An Appreciation by Steven Lubar and Collecting the Present: Digital Code and Collections By Sebastian Chan. Along with thinking through issues of presenting digital objects we also explore the potential of turning our interpretations and exhibitions over to the machines themselves.

What is available to see in a museum is rarely its whole collection. Many times a valuable piece is hidden for restoration or a collection is on loan. These eventualities are known to the museum visitor, but less often thought of are the catalogs of items in archives and storage. It is the odds and interests that are less eye-catching, less preserved, or that don’t fit neatly into the narrative or sets that a museum has chosen to display at the current time. These important but often overlooked artifacts may never have the chance to be seen if it were not for the interesting work of Museum

Bots. These lines of code trawl through the archives and collections of a museum to post out to the world based only on the pre-selected algorithm. To me, this is similar to the act of the discovery itself. Each item has it’s own chance to be unearthed and appreciated for it’s won merits and beauty whether it is a full sculpture or a fragment of a plate. For this reason, I find the idea of these bots somewhat romantic and it really makes me think about the biases of the historical representation available in accessible collections which lean toward what might draw more people and tell a more complete narrative. History Bot reminds me that History is often far from complete, it is a hidden beauty. Although a photograph can only show you so much of an item, the color of a pigment is almost impossible to pass through a camera lens, computer compression, and to the viewer without loss. Details lost and never passed on may give viewers a less than complete experience of the work shown to them, and so I don’t believe that a digital exhibition or presentation of works will ever truly be able to replace the physical experience. People will always prefer to see a masterwork painting in person than to see it in their web search results.

On a non-art aside, we must remember that all code and bots are only as the creators designed. They indeed have their own sets of biases that drive them and as Mark Sample points out the uses of these bots can be as wide and as varied as the people who make them. I know of a bot on the internet that’s sole purpose is to tweet whether the current day Is Friday the thirteenth. This is by all accounts a comical and simple bot. On the other side, a protest bot or other activist-oriented bots make a somber and clear point. Bots that remind the populace of the over-reach of government watchdog programs. Indeed there are Bots that coordinate protests on a grand scale across the country, that act for the social or the moral good. As the news is quick to remind us there are also bad actors who create bots that skew discourse, manipulate search results and bury opinions. Tweeting out misinformation and voting down unfavorable mentions. If these bots and tactics were used to suppress certain forms of history from the web I feel that would be a nightmare.

In short, I am optimistic of the ability to utilize these tools to bring light to history and other elements in a way that wouldn’t be feasible for a person to do, but I believe that it isn’t a magic bullet to be relied on and we should always look to have verified sources and physical records as we go forward into these new frontiers.

4 Replies to “Bots!”

  1. Your points on how the bots that trawl through digital collection content end up representing a kind of research or discovery process seems right on point to me. They can do interesting things in terms of reinforcing serendipity in how we run into collections as they pull things out of context and insert them in an ongoing social media feed.

  2. Great post! I think the idea of using bots to present often ignored items of history is a very interesting one though I share your concerns about creator biases or bad actors spreading misinformation. This is where placing these items in context becomes important and I remain uncertain about how a bot could achieve that. These tools could certainly make often ignored items more accessible but there would need to be a way to verify the information generated, the intention of the creator, and placing access to this information alongside access to verified sources I think would go a long ways to make this information more reliable.

  3. Hey, Diana, this is a really great post! I really like how you emphasize the fact that these bots give museums an opportunity to showcase objects within their collections that are not usually seen by visitors. These bots fill in the large blanks that most people aren’t even aware of and expose more people to other interesting objects that often never see the sun. It’s also interesting that these objects are taken completely out of the context of an exhibit but remain within the context of the collection, so really intrigued visitors can wonder how this object makes sense within this collection.

  4. Thank you for the interesting post, Diana! I like your point on how bots maybe help trace patterns in bias and what is deemed relevant and worth putting in an exhibit, while still keeping in mind the bias of the programming itself. I wonder though it these bots could actually be grounds for a physical exhibit. It’d be interesting to see if or how museum curators might be able to take the most commented on or liked artifacts and construct an exhibit based on public interest.

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