February 2009


One of my best friends and I have a tendency to reminisce about our shared experiences. During these (sometimes admittedly nostalgic) moments of looking back, I am always amazed at the different things that have stood out for each of us – a telling word, gesture, expression that I or she would not have ever recalled without the presence of the other.

In a way, then, my friend and I help make each other’s history more complete by remembering details that the other has forgotten. In a way too, it means that the past – or that particular version being remembered in bits and pieces – becomes quite spontaneous for us, entirely dependent on the course of the conversation, on the ebb and flow of memory on that particular day. Reminiscing about the same experience with my friend years later, I find that other aspects surface; the past is, one might say, renewed and re-created in each instance of remembrance, a mental landscape that is both familiar and yet full of surprising colour too.

I think one of the interesting aspects of conducting oral history interviews – which I had the privilege of doing recently with one of the former staff members at a local health care institution – is observing that very organic and spontaneous process of memory in play. While I, of course, did not share in any experiences of my interviewee, bringing only my knowledge of certain aspects of the history of the institution to the table, it was interesting to see how certain memories surfaced for her based on the flow of the conversation.

My understanding of this institution’s history informed the questions that I prepared. Yet the interview was by no means confined to these questions. They became starting points, triggering memories of other aspects of my interviewee’s experience – ones that I had not thought in advance to ask about and perhaps ones that she had not revisited until that moment in time. Another day, another interviewer, would undoubtedly bring other memories to the surface, revealing new pieces of a multifaceted history that can be tapped and reconfigured in so many ways.

And speaking about fragments of the past, I left the interview with an unexpected piece of history – literally. My interviewee was excited and eager to give me a brick that she had kept from the first building of her former work place, constructed in the late 19th century. Embedded with the shape of an animal, it now sits at the foot of my desk, a tangible piece of the past that stands in contrast to the transience and spontaneity of memory.

dream

Steveston, British Columbia

Photography is one of those activities that I can lose myself completely in. The hours I spend on it is time freely given (and hardly felt). Although I’ve been lucky enough to capture a few photographs that I’m pleased with (including the one above, which was modestly granted an honorable mention in the Geography Department’s fundraising contest for United Way), I’ve always considered myself just a tinkerer of sorts. A dabbler, if you will, whose yearning to be “artistic” has been mostly helped by technology. (I credit my Nikon camera completely for any good shots.)

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As it turns out, the digital age is apparently very amenable to those with tinkering and dabbling tendencies.

That, at least, was the (hopeful) sense that I got from reading Jeff Howe’s article on “The Rise of Crowdsourcing.” In it, Howe traces the ways in which companies are tapping into “the latent talent of the crowd.” He brings up the example of iStockphoto, a company that sells images shot by amateur photographers – those who do not mind (who, in fact, I’m guessing, would be thrilled about) making a little bit of money doing what they already do in their spare time: take pictures.

According to Howe, the increasing affordability of professional-grade cameras and the assistance of powerful editing software like Photoshop means that the line between professional and amateur work is no longer so clear-cut. Add to that the sharing mechanisms of the Internet, and the fact that photographs taken by amateurs sell for a much lower price than those of professionals, and it seems inevitable that some ingenious person would have thought up a way to apply crowdsourcing to stock photography sooner or later.

Howe provides an even more striking example of how the expertise of the crowd is being plumbed these days. Corporations like Procter and Gamble are turning to science-minded hobbyists and tinkerers to help them solve problems that are stumping their R&D departments. Howe mentions the website InnoCentive as one example of the ways in which companies with a problem and potential problem-solvers are finding each other on the web: the former post their most perplexing scientific hurdles on the site and anyone who is part of the network can then take a stab at solving the problem. If they do, they are finely compensated. And a good number, in fact, do. According to InnoCentive’s chief scientific officer, Jill Panetta, 30% of all problems posted on their website have been solved. That is, to quote Panetta’s words, “30 percent more than would have been solved using a traditional, in-house approach.”

What’s intriguing about all of this is the fact that the solvers, as Howe says, “are not who you might expect.” They may not necessarily have formal training in the particular field in which the problem arises; their specialty may lie in another area altogether. Yet, it is this very diversity of expertise within the crowd of hobbyists that contributes to the success of such networks as InnoCentive. As Howe puts it, “the most efficient networks are those that link to the broadest range of information, knowledge, and experience.” The more disparate the crowd, in other words, the stronger the network. [1] I love the ironies of the digital age.

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I’ve been wondering lately about whether history could benefit at all from the diverse knowledge and background of the crowd, whether crowdsourcing – posting a problem or request out in the virtual world in the hopes that someone might have the expertise to be able to fulfill it – could apply to a non-scientific discipline.

In other words, would a History version of InnoCentive work? A network where historical researchers could poll the crowd for information or materials or insight to help fill research gaps…where they could tap into the memories, artifacts, anecdotes, records, ephemera, (and even the ways people understand the past) of a diverse group and thereby possibly access information that might have never made it into the archives for formal preservation? How would the writing and construction of history change if, instead of primarily drawing upon the 5 to 10% of all records that ever make their way into an archives, researchers could tap into the personal archives of a disparate crowd made up of the “broadest range of information, knowledge, and experience”? (Let us put aside, for the moment, the issues of the integrity of the record and its provenance when we talk about “personal archives.” I realize that the shoebox in the attic is not nearly as reassuring a sight as the Hollinger box of the archives.) It seems probable to me that some of the 90 to 95% of records that never make their way into an archival institution are still extant, and that there could be valuable research material in them that could very well change one’s argument about the past. Would crowdsourcing be one way to get at that material?

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P.S. Of course, I just realized that I’m raising the above questions without considering a crucial aspect in all the examples of crowdsourcing that Howe mentioned: money. Those who answered the call – whether the amateur photographer or the scientific tinkerer – were paid for their services (ranging from a dollar all the way to an impressive $25,000). To pay someone for a piece of history raises a whole other set of questions…

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[1] Jeff Howe, “The Rise of Crowdsourcing,” Wired, http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/crowds.html.