Marginalia 29 – intimacy gradients, agency, learning

I managed to – perhaps predictably – get Covid at the VALA conference in June. Something more positive thing to come from the conference was Justin Kelly’s paper on using machine learning to describe photographs in the State Library of Victoria’s collections. Kelly resists the whizz bang cheerleading of many discussions of machine learning in library applications to take a sophisticated look at the ethical as well as technical consequences of using this technology.

Recently Craig Murdoch from AUT Library wrote a great short article about the open source tech AUT Library uses, and why. Murdoch makes the key point that the decision has very little to do with money (Open Source is not necessarily cheaper, nor necessarily more expensive), but rather with agency. Open Source and Free software can be bugfixed, extended, connected, or improved without having to wait for someone else to decide it should be done.

Christopher Allen has an interesting piece about intimacy, liminality, and technology. Allen explain the architectural concept of the “intimacy gradient” where more private spaces tend to be at the “back” and more pubic spaces to the “front”, with clearly defined transitions between them. Allen explores how this concept could be applied to online experiences and why it is so hard to create distinctive transitions between intimate and public space online.

In Logic Magazine, Will Luckman defends the irrational. Whilst positioned as an essay on the deficiencies of machine learning, Luckman’s piece goes well beyond that. It’s a commentary on the whole rationalist program – which includes of course things like all the various organisational tools used by librarians, archivists, museum curators, and so on. The point is not that we should stop using these, but rather that they must be constantly re-examined and amended by democratic processes:

When the options for human activity are reduced to a set of “optimal” choices made available through a machine-generated recommendation, other courses of action—and thus other possible future outcomes—are eliminated. We cannot allow this reduction to put limitations on the world in which we live. Instead, if these systems are to be salvaged, we have a responsibility to relentlessly interrogate who and what constitutes “data,” how it is made, what patterns we seek within it, and what we do with the insights that are surfaced. These questions must be put to the widest public forums available, and the decisions about how to respond must be made democratically. Then those questions must be asked again and again.

I can’t help thinking about this in relation to the increasingly loud calls within Librarianship for changes to standard classification systems and vocabularies, and the many people who are saying “nothing about us without us”, desiring to be subjects rather than objects.

Mita Williams shared this hilarious/useful talk by Nicky Case in her weekly email newsletter, and now I’m sharing it with you. Some people just want to see the world learn, so Nicky is here to tell you How to Explain Things Real Good.

Last up for this month is The Pandemic Was Office Culture and Middle Management's “God Is Dead” Moment by Ed Zitron (2021). I’m not a fan of writing about the Covid pandemic in the past tense (especially almost exactly one year ago!!!) and Zitron is very much talking about “information worker” industries. With those caveats, I think he’s pretty well right about modern office management culture. This certainly resonated:

The stigma of middle management is symptomatic of tying management to career progression rather than seeing management as both a skill and an organizational function, which is why so many awful managers exist.

Stay safe, be brave.

Marginalia is an email and web newsletter about things that made me think over the last month – articles, books, podcasts, and perhaps from time to time some videos. It comes out on the first Monday of every month. You can subscribe by following on any ActivityPub platform (e.g. Mastodon) or via email using the form below.

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