This week: what’s in a museum? Give us words, and ancient blockchain. Sandra Peter (Sydney Business Insights) and Kai Riemer (Digital Disruption Research Group) meet once a week to put their own spin on news that is impacting the future of business in The Future, This Week.
The stories this week
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Future bites / short stories
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Intro: This is The Future, This Week. On Sydney Business Insights. I'm Sandra Peter. And I'm Kai Riemer. Every week we get together and look at the news of the week. We discuss technology, the future of business, the weird and the wonderful, and things that change the world. Okay let's start. Let's start!
Sandra: Today in The Future, This Week: What's in a museum? Give us words, and ancient blockchain. I'm Sandra Peter, Director of Sydney Business Insights.
Kai: I'm Kai Riemer, professor at the Business School and leader of the Digital Disruption Research Group. Sandra's off-site this week so we'll have a short podcast. Sandra, let me ask you what happened in the future this week?
Sandra: Quite a few things happened but one of the very sad things that happened in the future this week was a big part of the past disappeared with the Rio De Janeiro blaze that destroyed almost 20 million relics in the National Museum of Brazil.
Kai: This story comes to us from Wired Magazine, it's titled 'Brazil's fire shows museums are broken. Here's how to fix them.'
Sandra: So this week was a very tragic reminder of just how vulnerable many of the artifacts we have are to very simple things like fires. One of Latin America's biggest scientific historical cultural treasures which was the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro has gone up completely in flames and has destroyed not only the building which was this 200 year old former palace but everything in it, that included Egyptian mummies and dinosaurs and the oldest human skeletons in the Americas and indigenous literature and all sorts of documents and meteorites and all sorts of things that have gone up in flames. And this was a reminder in this period when we talk so much about technology that the way we collect and store information, that the way we house such objects, the way in which we record them and we share them really hasn't changed much in the age of technology.
Kai: Not surprisingly, Wired Magazine locates the solution to this problem in technology. And so the question that is being asked is - is it actually necessary and a good idea to store the original actual historic artifacts in the museum in plain sight of everyone, taking the risk that things like this fire can happen? Or are there different ways of doing what a museum does which leads to the question what's in a museum? What does a museum do? And is it still the best way of "doing museum", the way we do it today.
Sandra: So we though we'll take this sad moment to have a look at the future of museums. What should museums be? And as we quite often do on The Future, This Week, we took a look at the past and this article helped remind us of the fact that in the Victorian Era actually museums were quite different to what they are now. Today it seems that what we value in a museum is standing in front of the original object, knowing that this object has stood the test of time and we are now in the presence of history. But this wasn't always the case. Victorian Era museums actually contain lots and lots of replicas and of imitations. The Victoria and Albert Museum for instance was housing lots and lots of replicas of sculpture and architecture and lots of metal reproductions and the concept was that you were there to share in the aesthetics of these objects without having to experience the original. The idea was that people went to museums to understand the objects rather than be in the presence of them. There are some nice quotes in the article by Dr Alexy Karenowska, the director of technology at the Institute of Digital Archaeology. This way of thinking about museums actually fell out of fashion over the last two centuries and it became much more about sharing a space with the original historical artifact rather than really understanding these objects. However Dr Alexy Karenowska actually says that in a world that is increasingly digital and increasingly transient, maybe the relationship with these objects actually became more important. Hence we needed to be in the presence of the actual artifacts. But there also seems to be a counter trend to this and this has to do with 3D modelling and 3D scanning of objects in museums.
Kai: And the article brings up the example of Syria where in 2016 the Institute of Digital Archaeology created a scaled replica of the 2000 year old Palmyra Arch of Triumph which was preserved because of the conflict in Syria and was indeed later destroyed by Islamic State. But because we now have the digital data it was possible to create an exact scaled replica of the original arch and in good time there will be an arch re-erected near the site of the original one. And so that shows that technology can make it possible to share the experience of the object and also share the experience of the object more broadly. So if we think about what the role of a museum is, now if we take the museum not just to be a collection of originals that lets us marvel at the old object and be in their presence but rather a space for education that lets us delve into the world of ancient times and that lets us experience the holism of objects and get a sense of the way of life that are tied in with those objects, then only working with originals becomes very limited. So any museum could only bring to life those cultures that they have access to the originals for and it would also always be very limited. But if we worked with replicas, we could share this experience much more broadly - more museums could have objects and therefore fulfill this educational purpose and we could also safely store and protect the originals at the same time. So the question then becomes a question about what's the role of a museum and what can a museum do? And that leads us to a visit that Sandra and I paid the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney here which we actually released as a special podcast of The Future, This Week...
Sandra:...which we'll include in the shownotes of course. So here is Matthew Connell the curator of 'Out of hand: Materialising the Digital', the Principal Curator we interviewed awhile back at an exhibition that was looking into all new forms of manufacturing and 3D printing technologies and its application on a wide range of fields including relics and artifacts.
Matthew Connell: It's actually really a digital solution to a heritage issue and Morehshin Allahyari is a young Iranian American artist who saw the artifacts at Mosul being destroyed by ISIS and she decided that she would see if she could respond in some way and resist the destruction of their material culture and all of the knowledge that therefore goes with it. And she gathered as much information about each of the destroyed artifacts as she could from photographs, from videos, from some scanned data and all of the other associated knowledge and she created 3D models of each of the artifacts and then printed them out. And in her models she also put in a little flash drive there which contained all of the known information about that work. Thirteen works in all she had and I think they're beautiful and they're not to scale, they're clear plastic with a beautiful sort of purpley tinge. But you know they are a response and she understands the value of the material to memory and heritage.
Sandra: So is this art? Is it a conservation effort? Is it a...
Kai: It's a digital up yours to ISIS?
Matthew Connell: Yeah, yeah that's exactly right. Yes I would say you've got it. She's very much an artist, Morehshin. But what she's done most recently or just before we put this show on and I was following her work, she is also releasing the code for each of the structures so that anybody can create their own. And I think that's just fantastic because it's an added string to the preservation bow, it's to make several copies and we actually downloaded the code from Rhizome and we print our own and I love our little King Uthal.
Kai: So all of this for me raises the question about where does this obsession with the original, the old, the actual come from, which is kind of a philosophical question if you think about it. And to me it harks back to the kind of thing/object focused ontology that we live in. We put a lot of emphasis on things: we build things, we design technologies so the substances become what we take to be real and to be actual. But if we think about it, things change over time. So artworks, old artifacts they're being restored and so you could argue that the things that we have in museums often are already not the pure, original form. And what that reminds me of is an old Greek paradox which is often used in the metaphysics of identities called The Ship of Theseus. And so this thought experiment proposes to think about a ship that is used by a Greek hero, Theseus, in a great battle and it's being heralded and being cherished by people as this ship used in ceremonies. But over time it decays and so we take away original parts and we rebuild those parts with newer materials to keep the ship intact. Now the thought experiment says now if over time we replaced all its parts and we discarded those parts, but someone collected those parts and rebuilt from those parts the entire ship. We would now have two ships - the one that is built from the original materials and the one that is being used and that is being celebrated as the Ship of Theseus. And the question then is which one is the actual, which one is the real ship? In other words is the real ship the one that contains the original substances or is the ship the one that is being used as the ship? And so various philosophical attempts have been made to answer that question. But the learning from this is that it very much depends on our understanding of what makes a thing. Is it the materials or is it its significance, its meaning? And I think we can learn something here for museums because if it is indeed about what things were used for, the meaning of things, their significance for a world back then, rather than that they contain the original atoms in the materials then maybe we do not need the original artifacts in a museum to have a museum and to celebrate what the museum wants to convey. And that is the history of a way of life that lets us learn about our condition today and can change us and our thinking about the future. So I think the question about what makes a thing and what makes a museum are closely related.
Sandra: So in end the idea of the museum of the future lets us really challenge our current understanding of a place filled with priceless artifacts and think about whether this is a necessary part of how we think about culture or whether there are ways in which we still can engage with those artifacts maybe with 3-D scans and replicas and allow more and more people to engage with the understanding of that object or with the idea of that object rather than necessarily the object itself. And the article in Wired concludes by actually reminding us that the idea of artifacts in a museum can actually evolve into something new altogether. The Palmyra Arch of Triumph that started out as a copy of the original, whilst the original has been destroyed, has now become an artifact in its own right and taken up new significances and new understandings that people can engage with.
Kai: And this is already our main story for this week's short podcast. We have two more Future Bites for you though and we'll start with Sandra.
Sandra: My future is about the new words that have entered the Merriam-Webster dictionary. So new words that have entered the English language and the story's from Engadget, it's called: ‘Bingeable, biohacking and fintech are now officially words’. On Wednesday, eight hundred and forty new words entered the dictionary as another step in our ever expanding language and the decisions about how these words enter every year depend on factors such as the ethos and the mood of the past 12 months as well as whether or not Oxford deems that the word will be culturally significant in the years to come. And besides the usual bullshit words like 'avo' and 'adorbs' and 'marg' which is margarita or other things you might enjoy at a brunch, there have been quite a few words this year that have to do with technology.
Kai: That are either directly related to technologies or how we use them or that have been popularised by our use of new communication technologies such as social media and an example for this would be the Reddit related TL;DR short for 'too long did not read' and directly related to our last week's skimming story of course.
Sandra: But also words like Instagram and Instagramable which are now officially part of the dictionary.
Kai: Or 'to gram' for that matter.
Sandra: Which is to post a picture to the Instagram photo sharing service.
Kai: But things are also now bingeable.
Sandra: And bingeable of course comes from Netflix which has actually run a few studies to figure out how many episodes of every one of its particular series it takes for you to become hooked on them and then for you to binge watch the entire series. Other words that have entered the dictionary have been things like 'haptics' which probably has started to enter our language ever since the iPhone has embedded haptic feedback so the fact that you feel the reaction of the object but haptic feedback mechanisms now have been incorporated in a lot of joysticks, phones, other devices that give us motion sensors...
Kai: Smart watches as well. Another word is 'biohacking' which is related to the idea of chip implants, more futuristic ideas around trans humanism, the way in which we can alter our genetics with things like CRISPR, gene editing so the application of technology to the human body or other organisms.
Sandra: And of course things like predictive. So in the era of algorithms, of artificial intelligence, of machine learning... a lot of words that have to do with how we describe the function of the algorithms in the world.
Kai: So these new words are not only a reflection of how our world becomes more and more saturated with technology and how technologies, communication technologies, new media, shapes the way we think and talk. What is also significant is that many of those words are given to us by the large tech corporations, they are coined by businesses for us to use. Not always of course out of altruistic purposes.
Sandra: And let's not forget that this is a trend that has accelerated, think back to 2006 when 'to Google something' entered our dictionary and it used to mean initially just to use the Google search engine to find something on the Internet. But now it literally means finding something on the Internet, Googling something. And while there are quite a few more that we would love to spend time on such as Wikipedia which can be a 'time suck', spoiler alert which has also entered the dictionary this week. We're down to our last short bite and that's yours Kai.
Kai: Mine comes from Vice. It's actually about a week old. We didn't get to it last week but we nevertheless thought it was so interesting that we had to mention it. It's titled 'The world's oldest blockchain has been hiding in the New York Times since 1995'. And so you might rightly say hang on a minute blockchain isn't that the thing that underpins Bitcoin which is pretty newish isn't it? Because after all Satoshi Nakamoto's research paper that introduced Bitcoin as a theoretical concept and then later on became actually embodied in Bitcoin was published in 2008. By the way cryptocurrency and blockchain also made it into Merriam-Webster's dictionary earlier this year. So this story is about the idea that underpins blockchain and how that predates Bitcoin significantly. So let's recap what's the blockchain actually does. So in essence a blockchain is just a database, a distributed database that is maintained by a decentralised network of users that is secured through cryptography or crypto mechanisms and the way it works is that whenever something is stored on the blockchain this is being parceled into blocks, blocks are created and secured by way of calculating with a mathematical formula what is called a 'hash', which is a mathematical value that then becomes the representation of the content on the blockchain.
Sandra: Each block then has this unique ID that incorporates the ID of the block that has preceded it and that then incorporates all of the data of this current block through an algorithm and becomes part of the blockchain.
Kai: So you're basically incorporating the history of all blocks into the current block and into the current 'hash' value. And so if someone wanted to alter any of the content anywhere on the chain of blocks they would have to recalculate all of these IDs and the current value would change.
Sandra: And this ensures the integrity of all of the data because it's distributed so you would as you've said need to basically change every block that everyone else has stored to be able to change history.
Kai: Now online in the digital world where we can simply copy and alter anything, in order to prevent this from happening what Satoshi did is he invented what is called proof of work. So essentially he attached to this creation of the blockchain a mathematical riddle, a problem that needs to be solved and that can only be solved by an ever increasing number of computers, by essentially computing power in expending energy which we discussed previously which is unfortunately what might make Bitcoin unsustainable at some point but it means that no one in the world can alter the blockchain because no one can have the amount of computing power needed to backward recreate the blockchain. Now if we don't have that problem online, we can solve this problem of publicising and making sure that we're unable to alter this hash value in a different way and which is essentially what people have done all the way back to 1995.
Sandra: So back in 1991, Haber and Stornetta realised that actually to do this in the real world, in the physical world, would require solving two problems differently. First you would have to find a way in which to timestamp the data so it would be impossible to change any of these documents without this becoming clear to everyone else. Second once you have the timestamp it would have to be impossible to change the timestamp itself.
Kai: And these insights were published in the Journal of Cryptology in 1991 and then implemented commercially in 1995. And the way in which they solved this problem was ingenious. What they did and have done ever since then and until the present day is every week they create the hash of all the data that this company called Surety stores for its customers that have calculated this hash and then printed it in the notices and 'lost and found' section of the New York Times. So ever since then there's this cryptic string of characters and letters that basically is the hash of this week's value and much like with Bitcoin no one can actually fool the system because they would have to obtain superior computing power to recreate the blockchain in this instance someone would have to actually recreate a fake copy of the New York Times and then out distribute the current circulation of about 570000 copies and convince everyone that theirs is the correct newspaper and that people should use this hash and not the one in the other version of The New York Times. So there you have it the oldest blockchain predates the idea of blockchain and Bitcoin. Interestingly we should add that Satoshi in his paper actually quotes a number of Haber and Stornetta's papers so his idea is built directly on their idea back then. And that's all we have time for today.
Sandra: Thanks for listening.
Kai: Thanks for listening.
Outro: This was The Future, This Week made awesome by the Sydney Business Insights team and members of the Digital Disruption Research Group. And every week right here with us our sound editor Megan Wedge who makes us sound good and keeps us honest. Our theme music is composed and played live from a set of garden hoses by Linsey Pollak. You can subscribe to this podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, Youtube, SoundCloud or wherever you get your podcasts. You can follow us online, Flipboard or sbi.sydney.edu.au. If you have any news that you want us to discuss, please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.