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Digital Value For Memory Institutions: The Complexity Of Cultural Context

by Charles Russell on September 24, 2018

Dr. Simon Tanner, Professor of Digital Cultural Heritage and DAM course leader at King’s College London, has recently published a keynote presentation for the ‘Museums and Digital Memory’ conference, organised by The British Museum.  His presentation aims to define the different ‘modes’ of value for digital resources within our museums and cultural institutions.  He opens with a number of broad explanations for ‘value’ and how the digital model is challenging such traditional definitions.

I conceive of museums as ‘memory institutions’ as they assume a common aspiration in preserving, organizing and making available the cultural and intellectual records of their societies. Within this context the way they value their work and activity is a critical conception, especially in fast moving digital times.”  [Read More]

He continues:

The word ‘value’ describes an idea about economics, an idea about personal expression and an idea about morality. In a heritage context tangible value is often associated with artefacts, historic sites or places that are considered by organizations like UNESCO or ICOMOS as ‘inherently and intrinsically of value’.

Intangible value is essential to appreciate for both memory institutions and digital resources – they rely on intangible values such as knowledge, social memory, education, brand or goodwill.”  [Read More]

It’s this intangible value that Simon focuses on, and in an attempt to examine it further, he breaks it down into 5 distinct ‘Value Lenses’:

  • Utility Value
  • Existence and/or Prestige Value
  • Education Value
  • Community Value
  • Inheritance / Legacy Value

To better grasp the concept of intrinsic (tangible) and extrinsic (intangible) value, we can look towards a number of articles from my co-contributor Ralph Windsor, who has written in some detail about the split nature of value in digital assets and how organisations might better position themselves in order to identify and leverage each side of the value equation.

Let’s take a look at the definitions for each of Simon’s value lenses:

Utility Value:  The value and benefits directly gained by people through active use of the digital resource now or sometime in the future.

Existence and/or Prestige Value:  The value and benefits people derive from knowing that a digital resource exists and is cherished by a community; regardless of whether the resource is personally used or not.

Education Value:  The value and benefits directly gained by people from their own or others ability to learn and gain knowledge (formally or informally) from a digital resource.

Community Value:  The value and benefits directly gained by people from the experience of being part of a community engaging with, or afforded by, a digital resource.

Inheritance / Legacy Value: The value and benefits derived by people from the ability to pass forward or receive digital resources between generations and communities. Such as the satisfaction that their descendants and other members of the community will in the future be able to enjoy a digital resource, if they so choose.

I would argue that Utility, Education and Community value are one and the same, as they all represent value gained from the use and appreciation of a digital resource, either by groups or individuals.  I would also argue that Existence/Prestige and Legacy value are also essentially the same, with the only difference being tense – one is concerned with the current value and the other with preserving it for future generations.

As a side note, although terms such as ‘social memory’, ‘satisfaction’ and ‘cherished’ are valid labels for emotional responses to the perceived value of any given asset, I believe there is a need to tread extremely carefully around such concepts – the recent reports of ‘monument mania’ perfectly demonstrate how pride in, or opposition to, an historic relic or artefact can often divide our communities.  Again, context is key in gauging the true worth of an asset, and some level of normalisation and impartiality is essential when dealing with extrinsic value and its inherently changeable nature.  Simon also covers this in his presentation and offsets the ethical implications against practical ones:

Morality means that value can also be viewed on an axis of moral and ethical debate against factors such as security, integrity, authenticity and validation.

In a digital world this presents the challenge of increasingly individualised and personalised interactions, simultaneously viewed and shared with others through social lenses in call and response loops.”  [Read More]

As the social lens and its call-and-response loop are bound to an ever-changing culture and the diversity of its sensibilities and opinions, this begs the question: if the extrinsic value of an asset is a constantly moving target, how might a conventional organisation (i.e. one that traditionally deals with physical assets) begin to line up its crosshairs in order to successfully migrate and profit from digital representations of its assets?  Ralph Windsor addresses this issue:

For conventional businesses who operate in a non-digital environment, the rapid rise of digital counterparts can give the impression that they are doomed to obsolescence and inevitable commercial failure.  Having an existing asset with intrinsic value, however, presents an untapped opportunity to collect data which can be contextualised to derive metadata (i.e. extrinsic value) and creates a digital asset associated with a physical one.  This model is widely understood by preservation-related organisations such as museums and libraries.  The latter frequently refer to their collections as ‘a wealth of knowledge’ for exactly this reason.”  [Read More]

For many, this discussion lies at the very heart of the digital asset ecosystem.  For extrinsic value to be fully realised, it needs to be as responsive, fast and fluid as the society that defines and consumes it.  And the sea of context that surrounds our digital assets needs to preserve and reflect the depth, diversity and richness of not just the physical assets it represents, but the very nature of the way we interact with them.

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