The Digital Stakhanovite

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There is an increasing number of people living in a digital era. Not only the environment becomes digital, but their own life products are digital. I'm not the earliest adopter, but I have used computers since 1983, Internet since 1991 and digital photography since 1993. I have accumulated around 418.000 emails and around 45.000 photos.

Emails have basic metadata (author, subject, date), which helps to create proper indexing and search. It could be certainly refined with sophisticated search algorithms. Digital photos have now EXIF (including date, and technical parameters of the camera) but nothing much else. My brain associates these photos ordered in a dated space with a list that I maintain of my very rough location. It helps me remember in which city it was taken, but nothing more.

Here lies the challenge. Giving more precise metadata to these photographs would be certainly useful for my own consumption but … a fulltime job. That would make me a digital Stakhanovite.

In Musings on photographic metadata, Sean McGrath says:

A great tragedy lies herein. A sad law of this universe seeps forth like an Einstinien nightmare. A law that goes something like this : "the chances of any normal human being taking the time to add incredibly valuable meta-data to the great wads of digital data they create daily, approximates zero." An alternative formulation - using the classic dentistry analogy goes like this: "Most people would prefer root canal work than the utter tedium and ambient feeling of futility that accompanies meta-data creation. Besides everyone is too busy. Oh, and besides that again, it always seems to be more fun to create new stuff than to create stuff about old stuff."

Sean is trying to see what could be done automatically through the devices, location is certainly one that should happen more and more often, see the new Nikon Coolpix P6000 with GPS and the geolocation activity creation being discussed at W3C right now.

The challenges become bigger when you want to share these photos with a larger public. At regular cycle, there is a rage debate over alt attribute on html working group mailing list. I'm not sure there is a perfect solution and we have to find a way to accomodate the circumstances of this sharing. The difficulty is that the right solution is more social than technical. Giving meaningful alternative information for the images you put online, really depends on the context. These are real scenarios.

  1. You want to share photos with your family. You sent them by emails (HTML emails most of the time), or you create an html gallery which is made by a software and put them online. You usually don't put more information than giving the context of the event and maybe sometimes description of some particular outstanding image, such as "Hey see the image below, it is the beach just in front of our room." The value of the image is limited to a few persons you know, still it might be here for public consumption.
  2. You are writing an article on the Web about graphics arts. The article has a lot of illustrations which are part of the argumentation, demonstrations. There are not only visual references, there are elements of the discourse.
  3. You are writing an online diary mixing images, quotes, and different impressions. Your site is more like a scrapbooking exercise. Images are often here to give a mood of your writings. There are like simple touches of colors, or even sometimes an element of phrase. They have more emotional values for the readers who can see than anything else.

There are many more possible cases. The big issue is how do we design the technology so that it will accomodate a maximum of use cases (social contexts) without making impossible for others to exist. There is not yet a definitive answer.

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