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by Robbin Murphy

TOPIC #4: Databases or Digital Packrats

One reason I'm drawn to the Internet is that I'm a packrat -- I save everything I find but usually can't find anything I save.

My hard drive is always full and my closets are overflowing, yet I keep acquiring more "stuff" that I know I'll find extremely valuable someday. Taken to extremes this could be construed as delusions of reference -- the notion that everything has a secret meaning especially for you -- but for now I think I'm pretty normal. Eventually there's a disk crash or I move, and the chaos magically turns into a semblance of order.

The Internet, on the other hand, just keeps growing.

In his book Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson envisions a future where the collecting done by the Library of Congress and the searching by the Central Intelligence Agency have naturally merged into one enormous database called the Central Intelligence Corporation. Freelancers upload any information they find with the hope that someone will someday find it and pay them to use it.

Are we there yet? Should we worry or is this just paranoia?

Considering the speed at which Internet search engines are developing, the CIA may be the least of our worries in a few years. The creators of the Web saw it as a hypertext environment, one where links would guide the browser through a contextual pathway -- one thing leading to the next according to the users need. However, search engines treat the Internet as one big database and are increasingly capable of performing more and more detailed and relational searches. Standardization, which the Internet is dependent upon, also makes database merging easier. Seemingly innocuous information on your home page may have real value when combined with data collected by the department of motor vehicles.

This has already caused some concern as our identities increasingly become distributed electronically. Controversy has been centered on the Lexis-Nexis "P-TRAK" personal information database and on whether too much personal information is being made publicly available without consent. (Lexis-Nexis legally obtains personal information from one of the big credit data agencies, then resells it, primarily to government clients). For the current status of this, check out the Privacy Forum.

Is there any good news about databases?

A few American art museums are beginning to see value in putting their image databases online. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (the de Young and the Palace of the Legion of Honor) have launched The Thinker, with more than 60,000 reproductions available, primarily of fragile works on paper rarely seen by the public. Future additions will include ceramics, glassware, and paintings as well as 3-D images. Eventually the entire collections of both museums will be online, some 120,000 pieces.

Visitors to "The Thinker" must agree to copyright restrictions and are warned that violators will be pursued. Otherwise this site is a big step forward in terms of access to art images by the general public and in terms of art museums being, as is stated on the website, "more like a resource and less like a repository".

In addition, The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities has provided access to a web version of IRIS, their online catalog containing records for over 350,000 book and serial titles, and descriptions of approximately 3,000 photographs.

Images (and video) are documents, too, and will eventually be accessed as easily as text.

Another significant addition to the Web is the capability to search images and audio with the Lycos search engine. A test run on the keyword "Madonna" brought up publicity photos of The Material Girl as well as images of her namesake by Raphael and Cellini. The only drawback is that contextual information is often lost because Lycos brings up the image itself independent of any webpage where it was placed. While we may think of it as part of a document, on the Internet the image is the document and all images should therefore be captioned.

Carnegie Mellon University (where Lycos was developed) is taking image searching even farther. Researchers are currently engaged in an initiative called Informedia to study how multimedia digital libraries can be created by indexing video using voice recognition for keyword searches. Lycos already finds video clips as well as still images on the Net. Informedia will make it possible to search the video for what you want as well.

Evolving artist databases may be the art history of the future.

Rhizome Internet is an archive for two Internet mailing lists, Rhizome Raw and Rhizome Digest, dedicated to fostering communication and community in the field of new media art. Rhizome Raw is unmoderated while the Digest includes some of that content plus other sources compiled into a daily message. Postings to the lists are then edited and placed in a searchable database. Members are greeted with an alarmingly thorough copyright notice when they subscribe and this seems to keep down the noise that plagues so many mailing lists and newsgroups on the Internet.

The Fluxus Mail Archive contains unedited and searchable postings to the Fluxlist mailing list. It's often entertaining as members debate the possible meanings of the Fluxus art movement as well as what they had for dinner.

Robbin Murphy is creative director of










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