The Death of the Expert Curator
By Anna Yuwen
The collection and summation of all human knowledge is a not a new endeavor. Varying institutions across millennia have searched for ways to catalogue, archive, and disseminate knowledge; the attempt to selectively preserve and harness written and printed works has supported the role of these Human Knowledge Projects. The structure of these institutions often imitates and conflates with that of the museum: there are certain empirical or qualitative standards that are compiled in order to seemingly embrace cultural memory, as defined by scholars, elites, and the intellectual authority.
The intellectual authority—otherwise known as the expert curator or gatekeepers—have excited ab aeterno and proven resilient in times of disruption. Even in the emergence of the technological age, where democratic participation and global collaboration seek to depose the expert curator by giving the individual the opportunity to be the principal producer of information, the control and representation of knowledge still requires the work of an overseer or mediator. However, the new gatekeeper has taken on a new form: with the drastic shift into a hyper connected and traceable digital world, the new gatekeeper is attempting to shed its human coil in an attempt to take on an omniscient, hidden, and invisible role. Data has become the curator, the purveyor of knowledge, the interpreter of information. The human aspect of curatorship has not entirely been replaced, but is largely censured behind the computer screen, the algorithms, the coding, the aesthetically minimalistic yet information-inundated spaces of the internet. Global collaboration and self-curatorship is largely contingent on the data, the knowledge that is represented and accessible. Indeed, the sphere of expertise in the digital age is shrinking, as information can now be uploaded, collected, and sifted through without the help of an expert curator. The intellectual authority, who at one point was tasked with designing and influencing our perceptions of knowledge, have now been asked to move aside for the new authorit(ies): data.
Data is increasingly being seen as the irrefutable evidence of truth. There is a systematic process of converting every miniscule and quotidian detail around our lives into data (see: The Internet of Things). In essence, we are the curators of our own life, as we document, upload, and download photos, sound bytes, tweets, and music. Data has become the expert curator, an especially salient truth of the digital world: human-influenced quantity is regarded above all as an indicator of reliability. The more views on a video, the frequency of retweets, the higher the h-index value of a published work all increase the likelihood that we assume the content is worthwhile (either regarded with value or contention). The mass collection of data has inadvertently affected the sphere of the former human expert curator, changing their role from one of the designer to one of the mediator, now in charge of increasing the role of collaboration and public discourse, especially in the wake of universally accessible and modifiable public engagement tools, such as Wikipedia.
The Visualization of Data
Since the 1970s, the combination of amassing large amounts of data and combining it with sensory experiences has been prolific. Information graphics and information design helped to spearhead the intersection between data and visualization (Grossman). By the 1990s, NASA had been widely using auditory techniques to scan data sets in order to isolate physical anomalies in space (Patel). Combining visual and aural techniques to the amalgamation of data was just the next to last form of curating information; soon, we would see attempts to engage with our aesthetic sensibilities by curating knowledge vis-à-vis data. The website “Listen to Wikipedia” is one example of a hub of ‘beautiful’ data that takes the knowledge produced by individuals on Wikipedia, renders them back to data points in order to compose a sensory experience: for every Wikipedia article that is created, edited, expanded, even erased, a specific tone is played to indicate this change in real time:
Listen to the sound of Wikipedia’s recent changes feed. Bells indicate additions and string plucks indicate subtractions. Pitch changes according to the size of the edit; the larger the edit, the deeper the note. Green circles show edits from unregistered contributors, and purple circles mark edits performed by automated bots. You may see announcements for new users as they join the site, punctuated by a string swell.
The amalgamation and merging of the copious amounts of data—in this case, the data refers to the quantity, size, and type of knowledge producer in question—generate an artificial synesthesia-like symphony. It’s a multisensory experience, mapping the frequency of the changes, and also very poignantly alluding to the fact that the sphere of the expert curator is being appropriated: first, by the self-curators who are selectively uploading information, collaborating and producing knowledge within Wikipedia; and second, by algorithms that collect gratuitous amounts of data in milliseconds in order to curate a soundscape, symphony, and visualization of knowledge, all while offering the chance for the user to interact and customize the experience.
“Abstract data, inert in themselves, are turned into art, and in that form they make us feel things and tell us things” (Grossman). Data does not necessarily have to be frivolous, such as visualizing the Wikipedia contributors typing away busily, reworking articles for the benefit of humanity, as their mission statement boasts. Instead, data is often times analogous with evidence, and evidence, in all its objective glory, is held in even higher esteem than the expert curator.
Democratic Participation and Collaborative Engagement
Despite the touting of objectivity, why is the expert curator being displaced? There is to be another shift, perhaps a regression, from what Roland Barthes had previously opined in his Death of the Author essay:
The author is a modern figure, produced no doubt by our society insofar as, at the end of the middle ages, with English empiricism, French rationalism and the personal faith of the Reformation, it discovered the prestige of the individual, or to put it more nobly, of the ‘human person’ (2).
The “human person” is no longer considered a noble individual, in the age of the Anthropocene, where humans are the root cause of so much environmental and political retrograde. Socially, the intellectual has been hunted down and targeted “in a mediascape and public sphere that view criticism, dialogue, and thoughtfulness as a liability” (Giroux 163). The idea of an authority figure does not bode well with the solipsistic introjection tendencies of a web community, especially with particular regard to the discourses of web ideologies and egalitarianism. The authority, the intellectual, the expert curator has lost credence and must make way for the self-curating user and the emerging role of data.
The demand for democratic participation and collaborative engagement is the basis behind free knowledge projects. It is only natural that there would be a coup d’état against those who deny the users agency. Yet, like any anarchic society that relies on non-hierarchical collaboration dependency on voluntary actions, in the absence of authoritative decision and coercion, an analogous strategy for structure is pursued. In the digital vacuum left by the expert curator, we see the replacement of data as the kernel of truth and substance that bolsters the production of knowledge.
Barthes, Roland. “The Death of the Author.” Aspen 5-6 (1967). Tr. Richard Howard. Web. (Retrieved Aug 08, 2015)
Giroux, Henry A. “The Disappearing Intellectual in the Age of Economic Darwinism.” Policy Future sin Education 9.2 (2011). 163-171.
Grossman, Lev. “The Old Answer to Humanity’s Newest Problem: Data.” Time Magazine Online. June 25, 2015. Web. (Retrieved Aug 08, 2015)
Listen to Wikipedia. “About.” Web. (Retrieved Aug 08, 2015)
Patel, Kasha. “More Than Meets the Eye: NASA Scientists Listen to Data.” NASA. Sept 04, 2014. Web. (Retrieved Aug 08, 2015)
Anna Yuwen has completed her BA in American Studies at the University of Maryland and is currently working on her MA in North American Studies at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilheilms Universität Bonn. She is presently exploring the crossroads between environmental discourse, development research, and critical literary theory.