In his October 2004 Wired article “Point. Shoot. Kiss It Good-Bye”, David Weinberger paints us the problem that comes with the joy of digital photography:
As our hard drives fill up with thousands then tens and hundreds of thousands of digital snapshots, we’re all going to face the same basic challenges as the Bettmann Archive. Of course, you won’t haul 19 semitrailers full of your decaying family photos into cold storage, as the Bettmann did in 2001. But you can expect to go clicking through folder after folder of pixelated images, trying to find the one where Aunt Rose put on a silly inflatable life preserver in the summer of 1999.
He then goes in to describe how Corbis is tagging their digital archive- with the skills of a professional metadata tagger, something few of us have or even care to bother with. Adding keyword tags to images allow the cryptic named images to be dredged up by search tools…
In computer parlance, these tags are metadata – information about information. But metadata as it relates to imagery is a slippery thing, and tagging is a craft, not a science. If, for example, Fraser doesn’t recognize one of the figures in a cocktail party scene as Serena Williams and instead tags it “Nightlife,” customers searching for photos of tennis stars won’t find it, and it might as well not exist….
Thus, the metadata most of us attach to our photos is pretty pathetic. We can name them when we transfer them to a computer, but most people don’t bother and end up with a hard disk full of photos with names like DSC00012.jpg and DSC00234.jpg. As the years go on, DSC00234.jpg will become an archaeological artifact that might as well be labeled Don’t_Know_Don’t_Care.jpg. If we’re to have any hope of preserving our memories, we’ll need to be more clever than that. Much more clever.
The article goes on to describe 6 ways (illustrated in a side bar) to ease the metadata tag problem- everybody wants tags for what they can provide, but no one wants the tedious chore of applying tags.
To me 5 of them to me are either un-reasonable or untenable, and the most interesting approach “socual networking” or the free form tagging method taking off at flickr (for photos) and del.icio.us (for shared bookmarks) gets rather short shift in the article. It’s one that is feasible for people to manage, and it is happening now (as opposed to facial or scene recognition).
A read of Jon Udell’s Collaborative Knowledge Gardening opens up the possibilities even farther.
And the leap from tagging of photos to so called “learning objects” is the shortest of steps… of course it is very clear what a photo is and what it means to tag it, but objects? We could spend the next 40 years wrestling over definitions or controlled vocabularies… to what end?