Notes Information Apocalypse

How many words is a picture worth?

So Te Ara is finally live, and I'm immensely proud of having been involved in the design process, primarily the development of the CSS/Javascript system, the lower level content pages and the search interface. A few people have asked me about the design process and technology involved - I'll try to answer these questions in a later post, but for now, I feel compelled to comment on some of the issues that seem to have been doing the rounds this week...

Last time I checked bookstores had a very wide and deep selection of titles on New Zealand history. Clearly the government thinks these books are no good and they can do a better job. But what if there was a way for those who are interested and knowledgeable in our country to contribute in their areas of expertise, without government interference, and without wasting tax payers money. - Michael Green

One of the design goals of Te Ara was to weave interconnections to this 'wide and deep' range of literature directly into the structure of the site. Hence, if you scroll down to the bottom of any story page, you can see a list of footnotes and a citation reference. Each story also has an index of 'Further Sources', which provides a starting point for interested readers to explore the topic in more detail. I think there's no doubt that Te Ara is intended to contribute to enhancing and supporting existing New Zealand histories (Oh, but I forget - Belich and his contemporaries are only responsible for 'revisionist crap'... as if providing 'factually accurate historical information' is just that simple).

Perhaps the wierdest thing that has arisen from the ineviatable bluster and reaction towards such a state funded project, is the idea that Te Ara is a misplaced substitute for what could/should have been achieved through Wikipedia. It's worth pointing out that there never has been anything stopping anyone from documenting New Zealand history through Wikipedia, and I have nothing but encouragement for anyone who wishes to contribute to this process. However, the claim that leveraging Wikipedia would have achieved the goals of Te Ara or been even better is just plain ridiculous. Wikipedia is an amazing resource, but has inherent limitations, especially in terms of narrative structure and multimedia support. As recent discussions regarding the value of Wikipedia entries and whether or not Wikipedia can actually be called an encyclopedia have shown, it's certainly not a value neutral objective field where we can finally escape the overbearing dominance of those who wish to tell the story in their own terms. History in many senses can never be neutral and objective - lets not pretend otherwise. In some ways, I feel that sponsoring the development of entries on Wikipedia somewhat defeats the purpose, though I would be interested in any suggestions or feedback as to how this might potentially work - there is certainly unlimited scope for covering almost everything to do with NZ and beyond. What is lacking from Wikipedia however, is a distinctive style and voice, due to its unique combination of decentralized authorship, and a centralized 'authoritative' (read: generic) representation. With Te Ara, a voice can be carried not only through the writing, but also through the structure of the navigation itself - a fundamentally distinct approach to hypertext, and the whole design aesthetic of the site is shaped around that high level identity. One of the biggest failings of previous neo-liberal governments is that they have completely ignored the cultural and educational area: the market by its own devices didn't - and never could - give rise to a collective cultural identity, which is actually kind of the purpose of a government in the first place. How ever flawed you might think it is, at least there is something that encourages New Zealanders to see their country as a whole, and not some atomized franchise ghetto. And it's only the beginning.

As for wasting taxpayers money, I think somewhat of a reality check is in order here... The Te Ara budget is spread over multiple years, and the full content archive will not be complete until sometime around 2011. The scale of the budget compared to the results of the output doesn't look particularly unreasonable in comparison to the budgets vs outputs of many commercial multimedia productions. It's obvious to anyone whose head isn't buried in a pile of sand that there currently exist ongoing and far more serious social and bureaucratic issues involving far larger amounts of taxpayer money.

What's really wrong with the '$4 per word' soundbite is that it totally ignores the overall structure of the resulting media. How many words is a picture worth again? Especially when the pictures might be interactive maps tracing migration paths, or diagrams of Maori cosmological understanding, that to the best of my knowledge, have not appeared in any other freely accessible public format. Would it be preferable to have published the encyclopedia in print or cd-rom format, and charged all the schools and institutions in New Zealand hundreds or even thousands of dollars to access the resources? It's worth recognizing that we are communicating to (amongst many) a generation of children who have grown up with high end gaming consoles and interactive visual entertainment as the norm. The importance of colour, motion, and sound can not be overstated, and neither can the connections between the words, and the encouragement to explore these connections for yourself, which is where the real value lies.

Disclaimer - this entry reflects my personal views only, and does not represent the views of Shift, or the Ministry for Culture and Heritage.