SAH Blog


Building Data: Field Notes on the Future of Architectural History

Helena Karabatsos Sep 25, 2013
This is an excerpt of an article by Gabrielle Esperdy that originally appeared in Places Journal on 9.23.13

1. Wilderness in search of metadata
After decades of lurking in the shadows of the digital realm, metadata is finally facing the glare of the media spotlight, from revelations about National Security Agency surveillance to disclosures of Wikipedia’s woman problem to discoveries of privacy breaches on Facebook. At first glance, these disparate scandals don’t seem to have a whole lot to do with metadata: at Facebook, the company was sharing member preferences and activities with advertisers; at Wikipedia, site editors were changing classifications for American novelists, separating out those who also happened to be women; at the NSA, analysts weretracking phone records, looking for patterns in who called whom. But in all cases, it was the use and abuse of metadata — structural metadata that describes how data is organized into hierarchies and categories, and descriptive metadata that describes the content of the data — that was at the heart of the controversy. In fact, structural and descriptive metadata —data about data, to put it simply — are critical to our networked lives. Searching without metadata would be like following Dr. Seuss on a dérive down a rabbit hole. It might be fun for a while, but when information is the quarry, seeking without finding has its limits (notwithstanding the allure of full text strings). Whether we are wondering which movie won the best picture Oscar in 1965, how frequently the Airtrain runs to JFK, or when the English edition of Vers une architecture first appeared, metadata helps to guide our search and to aid in discovery. And yet, though we spend an increasing amount of time searching for information, once we’ve got it, we rarely think about how we found it. Few of us contemplate the algorithms when what we’re after are the answers: The Sound of Music; every 3 minutes; 1927. 

Yet while metadata is finally getting attention, it’s still not getting much respect. It remains the stepchild of authorship, a technicality we assume others will handle — namely, all those indexers, librarians and cataloguers who’ve been engaged in something akin to metadata creation for a couple of centuries (think Library of Congress Subject Headings, the New York Times Index, or the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals). If in earlier centuries — in the print-only era — that division of labor made sense, today it is an obsolete holdover that should be challenged by every 21st-century author; for in the digital era the creation of metadata is essential authorial territory. Here, of course, the concept of authorshiprequires qualification: as Roland Barthes very nearly predicted (and numerous critics have observed), the author is now a producer of diverse content (clearly text is a wildly inadequate term) in diverse media and formats, distributed across diverse platforms. [1] To find all this rapidly proliferating content has become an ever more complex task, and for those of us who also produce content in order to generate knowledge, the task is even more fraught as we use our multiple devices to sift through tens of thousands of results that may or may not be authoritative, verifiable or even remotely useful, much less organized according to our own research interests or priorities. 

Almost two decades ago — still early in the digital age — Nicholson Baker discovered thatfinding aids — like the index cards in a catalogue or the entries in a database — whether printed or computerized, were not neutral (though Barthes could have told him this two decades before that). Baker argued that cataloguing itself could, and should, be understood as a genuine contribution to scholarship; he also argued that the catalogue cards themselves contained information important in its own right, regardless of the content they directed us to, and taken together constituted a potentially significant historical record. [2] Back in the '90s most of us missed this crucial point (distracted as we were by Baker’s main narrative: the last days of the physical card catalogue); and most of us are still missing it today. Though many experts accept cataloguing and metadata as roughly synonymous, and though most of us engage in cataloging-cum-metadata when we categorize our blog posts, tag our photos on Flickr, and keyword our journal articles for scholarly databases like Academic Search Premier or JSTOR, rarely do we think about metadata or its creation as part of our intellectual practice. [3] But what if we did? We'd discover that metadata has been with us for far longer than we've realized, concealed in the taxonomies and classifications we’ve been using to structure disciplinary knowledge since at least the Enlightenment. Even if we've dedicated our intellectual practices to upending the canon — with its fusty taxonomies and rigid classifications — we still need the schema, if only to reject it. 

In "The Great Gizmo," Reyner Banham offers a powerful evocation of a mythic pioneer: "The man who changed the face of America had a gizmo, a gadget, a gimmick — in his hand, in his back pocket, across the saddle, on his hip, in the trailer, round his neck, on his head, deep in a hardened silo." Almost half a century on, we prefer more nuanced portraits of frontier settlement and cold war brinksmanship, but Banham's image remains deeply appealing, and it’s tempting to carry it forward into the present digital/machine age of iPhones and Google Glass: a gizmo on her face, etc. But Banham understood that the gizmo’s true significance, and perhaps most lasting impact, had less to do with size and portability — though these were key gizmo attributes—than with the distributive culture the gizmo generated, and ultimately required. The Colt Revolver, the Franklin Stove, and the Evinrude Outboard Motor are undeniably great gizmos, but they achieved this greatness, at least in part, because folks in a "trackless country" knew how to find them. Which is why Banham calls the Sears Roebuck catalogue "one of the great and basic documents of U.S. civilization." [4]

Banham isn't just interested in how gizmos make history; he’s also interested in using gizmos to do history, "gizmology" as discipline and method. What's key here is that Banham understood that it wasn't enough to study the gizmos themselves, no matter how satisfying they might be as objects or artifacts; nor was it enough to study their transformative effects, whether social, economic or technological. For Banham, it was also necessary to study the networks in which the gizmos existed. However much he appreciated the Sears catalogue as a compendium of gizmos, what really caught his attention was the gizmo information that Sears' "Big Book" contained: the categories, descriptions, prices, shipping weights, warehouse locations, and so on. 

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Author’s Note


This article grew out of a paper delivered at the annual conference of the College Art Association in February 2013. My thanks to Craig Eliason for organizing the session, “Putting Design in Boxes,” and to David Shields for his useful commentary.


Notes


1. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (1967) in trans. Richard Howard, The Rustle of Language(New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1986), 49-55. See also Nicholas Rombes, “The Rebirth of the Author,” C THEORY (October 2005).

2. Nicholson Baker, “Discards,” The New Yorker, 4 April 1994, 64-86. 

3. See Karen Coyle, “Understanding Metadata and its Purpose,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 31 (March 2005), 160-163. Here, Coyle offers the quip that “metadata is cataloguing done by men.” See also Coyle’s InFormation

4. Reyner Banham, “The Great Gizmo” (1965), reprinted in ed. Penny Sparke, Design by Choice (London: Academy Editions, 1981), 108 & 110. The Sears Catalogue from 1896–1993 is available in a digitized version at Ancestry.com. 

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