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Amsterdam - 14, 15, 16 November 2002

Worlds of hackers and viruses in a museum context

Franziska Nori

digitalcraft is a project begun in 1999 by Frankfurt’s Museum of Applied Arts. Its purpose is to document fast-moving trends as they develop in our everyday digital culture. digitalcraft continues to expand a collection comprising a selection of contemporary and historically relevant artifacts within the realm of digital arts and crafts. The three areas of collection currently under development are games and emulators, website and a historic online community.

Another concern of the project is to impart a new understanding of the significance of digital culture through exhibitions, workshops and conferences. digitalcraft organizes interdisciplinary exhibitions like “I love you” about computer viruses and hacker culture, “Origami Digital” about the demo scene and “adonnaM – mp3 , the hidden revolution in the Net” about MP3 and peer-to-peer technology.

/ museum as content provider or ‘ministry of truth’
In a society defined by an exponential growth of the produced knowledge the question about its authenticity and accessibility will play a central role.

Museums, libraries and cultural institutions worldwide detain 95% of the entire human cultural heritage. Science, history, philosophy, arts and letters, an infinite amount of collected documents, objects and data constitute the history and memory of human kind, to be preserved for future generations. These memory institutions therefore fulfill a central role in society as memory archives and public content providers. Seen as a whole this immense amount of ever growing data shapes our social identity and constitutes the perception of where we are coming from and where we are going to.

The contemporary and future production of culture will increasingly be in digital formats.
How can we collect contents that are fugacious and transitory, which per definition are in an ongoing process of modification like for example websites or net art projects? How will we document social aspects like interaction and communication streams? What about issues like authorship, copyright and digital rights management?

Digitized and digital content will in future also require an increasing need for technical archiving solutions. Will they be hacked? Maybe. By whom and why, that might be one of the questions.

Reality is mainly a mediated entity. Museum and memory institutions are not only archives of cultural heritage, but they actively contribute to shape the identity of a society. Collecting and archiving means that people use pre-selection and a classification in the sense of history writing. It is a necessary approach considering the otherwise unmanageable amount of data, but it certainly raises the question about the subjectivity and relativity of viewpoints.

What information is worth of being stored? Who decides about it? Where will it be stored and will contents be freely accessible?

Cultural institutions aren’t “ministries of truth”, but they are merely telling a story rather than the whole history.

/ future setting
Within the information society museums will have to re-think their role and their function.

The new assumptions are:
- The exponentially increasing amount of digitized content and therefore an overload of information
- The increasing ubiquitous distribution of information and accessibility
- A radical change of communication structures towards the individual

A future chance for museums could be to act as distributors of contents. To act as content providers and to offer target group specific services and applications. Mobile Museum Guides, virtual museums, multimedia learning supports are already getting implemented in museums, but more interesting is to consider new strategies in the museum working methods.

Different communities on the Net are already collecting and producing digital contents such as websites, games, demos etc. In our experience a museum should look for active collaboration with those communities and invite them as experts to build up collections and even exhibition projects.
Museums could offer a long term platform for ephemeral and wide spread digital objects and knowledge to be documented, archived and communicated to a broader audience. The challenge is to augment accessibility to volatile phenomena.

Through the digitalcraft project we've already had some positive experiences in this kind of team play between an institution (such as the Museum of Applied Arts, Frankfurt) and Internet ‘sceners’. Concretely: for digital projects in cultural institutions we reccomend a closer tie between producers and private collectors and museum experts, where both parties contribute their specific expertise in order to jointly create the cultural heritage of our digital age.

Furthermore it would be of great interest to adapt the idea of ‘open content’ to a new method of museum work.

/ museums and dinosaurs
So what about the security of the servers? The authenticity of contents? Who produces the data and by whom does it get distributed? What are the terms of access?

Through the increasing reliance upon digital data we will face more complex challenges than simple server attacks. I believe that in an increasingly digital world we will need to fundamentally re-think the whole traditional communication system of “one-to-many” or “server-to-client” in the museum field.

Think about the current crisis the music industry is going through. It is a good example of the fundamental change we experience. These companies are reluctant to face structural change which is by now irreversible. The worldwide over 10 million users of Napster or Kazaa have created the undeniable reality of digital file sharing and swapping. Thanks to data compression standards like mp3 and peer-to-peer networks, users completely undermined not only the distribution system of the music industry, but even more fundamental issues as ownership and copyright.
I doubt that the answer is copy protection and legal prosecution. Half-hearted compromises like online shops of digital music and video files will not do the job either. Only a fundamental re-thinking of key competences in the sense of user-friendly services could help. The challenge will be to understand the new circumstances and to experiment with innovative approaches.
Alike the music industry after the advent of the audio file sharing phenomenon museums in the age of internet are an endangered species as well.

/ what about the hacking culture or hacking and culture?
Hacking is a provocative term, which throughout the last two decades has generated many polemic discussions. When we speak of hacking we at first think of something negative. We associate acts of digital vandalism, of unauthorized and destructive break-in and damaging of data. These acts are produced by crackers or “black heads” (there are many terms). Within the hacker scene they are branded as sort of the “bad” guys. But there is also another side to hacking, I will than get to.

But lets first replace the term “cracking” with a broader definition, like:
- Destruction (of information)
- Manipulation (of data)
- distortion or false interpretation
- denial of free access

What would that lead us to? Some examples:

historical example:
- (destruction) The Library of Alexandria got destroyed 1600 years ago due to persisting wars. The Greeks had built this archive as repository of all the originals of the literary production of their times. The loss of that library meant the loss of the collective memory of the whole era.

- (interpretation) Until nowadays the Vatican Archives in Rome detain millions of historical documents which are still not freely accessible even by scientists. The Vatican operates a strict selection of the documents they release influencing willingly historiography.

- (free access) Many governments around the world restrict the free access to the Internet. Last summer the authorities of China managed to censor the free use of the search engine Google in their country.

- (free access) As early as 1989 Bill Gates founded a company called Corbis. 1995 Corbis bought the most important image archive worldwide, the Bettmann Archive, repository of 16 millions original photographs. In the following years Corbis methodically persecuted the acquisition of rights of as many images as possible, digitizing them. Today Gates controlles three quarters of the worldwide trade with digital images.

We all agree that we want to prevent the physical destruction of our cultural heritage. But how do we prevent political or economical interests to distort or monopolize it?

back again to hackers:
The philosophy hackers say to believe in, is the idea of the open-source culture. To resume and simplify a complex topic: open source means distributing developed technologies (for example software) freely and allowing them to be used and further developed by others . In turn they will put the results of their work in the public domain. This ongoing process generates constantly modified and perfected versions of the original one.

The idea of hacking beholds the right and freedom of expression and creativity, for free and democratic access to information (equal access) and open distribution channels. But the open source mentality doesn’t go together well with the rules of free market economy and it threatens traditional concepts like authorship, copyright and intellectual property. Hacking implies overcoming certain social restrictions. Hacks burst information structures and information networks. Someone hacking does not necessarily pursue negative means but perhaps also searches to criticise the system, putting an established system of value into question.
Free access to information generates a distributed knowledge system that works against monopolies of centralized knowledge.

What’s there to learn for traditional institutions like museums?

- How about a museum as competence center and application provider?

- Being a main content repository what if museums act as providers of Digital Right Management services for authenticated digital contents?

- How will museums be able to actively collaborate with communities integrating the knowledge of the original producers?

- What if museums and cultural archives would start to build up distributed knowledge systems? Could the idea of a distributed system as the peer-to-peer network act complementary to a centralized information archive?

If knowledge is power lets never stop asking ourselves who is in charge of knowledge.

updated Monday 31 March 2003
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