How Martha Graham’s “American Document” Relates to the State of Digital
Yesterday, I saw a rendition of Martha Graham’s American Document. It’s a dance piece that samples the zeitgeist of 20th century America. The work is a part of the Public Theater’s Under The Radar Festival and now includes moments from the 21st century thanks to director Anne Bogart, playwright Charles Mee, and the Martha Graham Center. However, it’s only 80% done.
The work opened with a spoken prologue that explained the process of recreating Graham’s piece. The archives included a 5 minute video clip and choreography scribbled on a few sheets of paper. It’s funny to think of preserving dance because it’s live and fleeting. And that’s what got me thinking of digital.
Who remembers the architecture of GeoCities in the 90s? More so, who remembers the behaviors we exercised while creating custom GeoCities pages? The motions of digital are much like dance, improvised, rarely written down and difficult to replicate. History has always been an important foundation of progress, and I’m constantly grappling with my own personal digital history – less in terms of my digital footprint, but more so on my actions.
And that got me thinking again, preservation and data. At work, we’re constantly talking about data. For the greater part of my life, I avoided numbers – My father is an accountant and I always thought how boring it would be to spend your days surrounded by numbers. But today, numbers are our ticket to building an archive of digital behaviors. What’s my frequency of consuming content through my Google Reader than Twitter? Let me compare my 2010 ratio to 2015.
Data, however, is not nearly as valuable unless you have competitive benchmarks. I’d argue that calling data that’s outside of your own competitive is what’s holding the digital community back. All data should be deemed comparable. Digital advances when it’s open to everyone. The community can then apply their collective creativity to the information at hand and take part in projects like the Netflix Prize or NYC BigApps. I’m over the term collective intelligence. It glosses over the fact that analyzing data (the internet, this world) is evolving, begs improvisation, and embodies creativity.
Without the Martha Graham Center’s archives and the insights from Bogart and Mee, yesterday’s performance would have not been possible. Their collaboration was core to the success and their willingness to share their progress and unfinished work allowed for the audience to deeply engage and influence the piece’s completion. If dance is like digital, why don’t we exercise the same transparency? Why do we critique each website and application as if it’s a product that cannot be changed?
If I could have my way tomorrow, there’d be a Data Dump. Data Dump is to data as Creative Commons is to art. After a project’s completion, individuals and companies would submit their captured data to the site. Why? Because we will soon stop seeing data as something that needs protection. The more informed we become about digital, the more likely every project after will advance the community. Imagine Burger King being able to access McDonald’s numbers and vice versa. This idea is probably diabolical to their C-Suites, but it’s already happening to an extent. I can see how many Facebook friends, Twitter followers, Bit.ly clicks and so forth you have, but only having a slice of the pie creates an obstructed view. If each competitive party is making assumptions about the other, that only leads to equal errors and a lack of progress. But if each party saw each other as comparable, or dare I say collaborative, imagine the possibilities.