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The Digitization of Cultural Practices


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Artist's View iPad app

Artist's View iPad app for exhibition "Americans in Florence. Sargent and the American Impressionists" 2012. Netribe, Bologna, Italy.

Credit: palazzostrozzi.org

Over the past few decades, computing researchers have developed a wealth of new systems to preserve and share cultural resources. Computing platforms give everyone access to high-resolution images of ancient cave paintings and Google artwork; 3D scanning systems digitize Michelangelo's sculptures and Pompeii's remains;7 and haptic devices allow users to touch and feel ancient sculptural forms.1 More recently, researchers have employed collaborative and crowd-sourced software in the restoration of specific artifacts and environments (such as paintings and archeological sites).9 These approaches tend to fall within one of three categories: digitally reconstructing objects and landscapes from the past; broadening access to cultural resources through remote distribution platforms; and digitally representing and archiving cultural artifacts and media (see Figure 1). In each, researchers position digitization techniques to support cultural preservation.

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However, among these technological developments, researchers often miss a key element—cultural practices. Even as our cultural artifacts and media carry on digitally for future generations, our reasons for reading books, exploring contexts for understanding artwork, and developing ways to share and celebrate everyday practices remain relatively rare. And for good reason, as computing researchers find it difficult to identify, codify, and digitally record cultural practices. Cultural practices do not figure as squarely in the language of computation as many abstract and theoretical models. They emerge as forms of memory, in which the public remembers and forgets the past as a lived and constantly mutating collective experience. In this regard, researchers do not conserve cultural practices in the sense they freeze them in time by making them explicit. On the contrary, they preserve cultural practices by "enacting" tradition and experience. Digitization can thus enable and extend the work of preservation. In making this argument, we look at practices, after Schatzki,15 as arrays of human activity, temporally situated events involving rehearsed, materially mediated actions and embodied social relations. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (http://en.unesco.org/) identifies practices as "very fragile by their very nature." While they bring to life some of our most celebrated cultural forms, they are easily overlooked by the public.2


 

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