Keeping Track of Cultural Functions and Practices in the Digital World: How Old is the New?

Ed S. Tan
Word and Image Studies
Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
The Netherlands

Abstract. Digital media contribute to culture by perpetuating exisiting forms of practices and enabling the introduction of new ones. This paper charts the perpetuation and transformation of digital culture in a top-down fashion by presenting an inventory of well-known cultural practices and discussing their manifestations on the Internet. Five different ideals of cultural transfer are presented, along with their functions and practices at various points in time. Examples are given with hyperlinks to respective online resources.

The Growing Web of Culture

Like previous new technologies in history, digital media contribute to culture in at least two ways: they perpetuate existing forms and practices and enable the introduction of new ones. Photography supported the distribution of copies of paintings, but also became a radically different form of representation. Television, the last technological novelty that helped to reshape our culture on a worldwide scale, brought concerts, films and theatre performances into the homes of a mass audience, and was the driving force behind semi-staged live events from the walk on the moon and the performance of ‘All You Need Is Love’ in 1969 to the ‘Night of the Proms,’ and more recently, Princess Diana's funeral. The Internet likewise acts as a medium for transferring art and culture on the one hand, and as a system for creating, performing and expressing art and culture on the other. The latter function involves a metamorphosis of traditional forms into something that we have various tentative names for, such as ‘digital art,’ ‘new media culture’ or ‘e-culture.’ Following either of these developments is fascinating, and makes one wonder whether there would be ways to keep track of them either for their own sake or in the interest of historical and theoretical research. So is there a way to chart both the perpetuation and transformation of culture in the digital world?

No institution has so far taken the responsibility for collecting and preserving cultural Internet content, and a short moment of thought makes clear why this is so. The fascination for living history that many of us have is inversely proportional to the feasibility of freezing rapid changes and passing them over to the next generation, mainly because the development of cultural Internet content and other digital forms of culture is a spontaneous and exponential process. Thousands of indexing robots crawl the web, processing billions of single pages to index terms. But the best search engines can retrieve only a small part of all content, and non-networked digital culture is almost impossible to lay hand on [5]. Even the best search engines will inevitably stumble upon the lack of availability of outdated systems in the longer run. Identifying and collecting culturally valuable materials is only a first step in preserving the digital heritage. Keeping it in shape for reuse is the next step, and it may be even more problematic. The more ingenious applications offered through the Internet, such as intelligent documents and complex computer graphics, often require a software environment that does not conform to longer lasting widely shared standards. All in all, the view that culturally valuable digital information cannot be preserved is influential in information management circles [4].

Tracking Exponential Change

So are we condemned to surf and try hard to remember, already reconciled with the prospect that later generations will have to resort to oral history in order to imagine and only partially understand what took place in twenty-first-century cyberspace? I believe that there is an alternative to grazing the Web by bots that return only fragments of an intricate and refined – if you will, ‘rhizomatic’ – network of cultural practices, objects and events. Without giving up low-level, bottom-up indexing as performed by Web crawlers, valuable as it has proven to be, and hoping for some institutions that will archive parts of the cultural content dug up this way from day to day, we can work from the other end of the line and chart digital culture in a top-down fashion. We start from an inventory of well-known cultural practices and record their manifestations on the Internet. Only the best manifestations, i.e., the most exemplary, are retained in a store. New practices that cannot be recognised as transformations of traditional ones are added to the inventory as new categories. The approach may have the disadvantage that it tends to project the present into the future, but this seems justified as there is no unbiased way to look ahead in time. Obvious as this may sound, an enormous effort in research and development is aimed at attempting just that. The lesson to be drawn from many an R & D example is that radically new systems have difficulty in finding their way outside the lab into the world of real users.* It is as if a possibly brilliant solution has to find a suitable problem. One way out for these laboratories is to collect patents, which are kept until a third party has found a recognisable problem and a few steps between problem and solution. When a number of different well-known problems have been tackled using the new technology, it may find wide acceptance, but only gradually.

Describing technological innovation in cultural practice as a change of current ways, then, is in many cases true to the actual course of events. The core of existing cultural functions and practices may be preserved for a long time, and we can recognise it in gradually developing cultural ecologies, such as the ones that are emerging right now in the digital world. When a ‘real breakthrough’ occurs in the process – for which a priori criteria are lacking, this will be marked by an alteration of the entire conceptual framework in use for understanding the practice.** In this case, completely new ecologies arise that have become feasible only due to the technology of the digital world and its new forms of organisation, distribution, management and business, as Manuel Castells has shown in his The Rise of the Network Society [1]. But in the realm of culture, also the ‘really new’ may be seen as a projection of the old, at least to some extent. If cultural practices, either old or new, are regarded not simply as fixed ways to deal with cultural objects and ideas, but at least in part as compromises between farther reaching ideals and hard technological realities, the conceptual gap between the old and the new suddenly becomes much smaller than one would expect. This is what I will try to explain in the remainder of this contribution.

It should be noted that I will not consider the desirability of any of the changes that take place in the transition from traditional to digital culture. Evaluating the value of digital culture is outside the scope of the article, and will be mentioned as the top item of the list of things to do at the end. However, understanding what changes and what remains stable is a prerequisite to appreciating the (apparently) new.

Ideals and Models of Culture Transfer

Consider traditional practices of getting acquainted with cultural heritage. By traditional I mean practices that existed before the digital revolution, say before the 1960s. They have their origin in the circumstance that since the Enlightenment, governments, institutions and private persons have assumed responsibility for preserving items of culture that relate to a national identity and for facilitating access to the cultural heritage for the public. In all countries in the western world we have libraries, museums, monuments, architectural heritage and landscape and archaeological sites that are considered cultural heritage that should be preserved in order for future generations to be acquainted with their past. Any traditional cultural practice, for instance visiting an art museum or a national park, or looking at pictures of historical nautical instruments in a book, is an instance of a cultural transfer ideal, or in short: a cultural ideal. Some institution has made available cultural objects and knowledge related to these because there is consensus on the value of both the objects and making these available to the public. The public at large, in its turn, considers learning about the objects and their meaning as valuable. There are various ideals of transfer of culture that revolve around the values of presenting the public with the heritage and teaching what it constitutes and means. Five of these – the cultural depot, the library/archive/museum, the theatre, the encyclopedia, and the academy – will be discussed here [Table 1]. Each consists of 1) a cultural transfer function and a related cultural transfer institution, and 2) a cultural practice performed by the public and often tied to a dedicated place. Cultural ideals have developed in a technological context. Functions and practices interact with technology. A set of mutually related functions and practices derived from an ideal and dependent on a given technology will be called a model of cultural transfer, or simply: model. Models are defined by a particular technology in the first place, but they are also distinguished by related economic and organisational paradigms, which we will not discuss further here. The technologies that distinguish models in Table 1 have not been dated exactly, but the order of their occurrence is by and large chronological, even if they overlap in time.

Table 1. Ideals and models of access to culture, with links to example web sites. Institutional functions: means and processes provided by cultural institution; Practice: participatory processes by the public.

Cultural depot
Collection and access:

Library / Archive / Museum

Systematic description and knowledge:

Research and debate:

Traditional technology Institutional functions Storage, preservation, retrieval Primary and secondary description, search retrieval, exhibition Search, selection, preparation, exhibition / spectacle / concert Secondary and tertiary description, reference Research, peer review – debate, tertiary description and foundations
Practice Visitation, survey, viewing, learning Search, viewing, learning, experience, loaning Experience Learning Discovery, experimentation, study, reflection, debate, writing
Digitising and network technology Institutional functions Virtual, distributed storage

French film distributors
Shared catalogue, search, retrieval, distributed virtual library

Reference room for Scottish heritage institutions
Video broadcast

Streaming video fragments
Distributed storage

On-line encyclopedia linking distributed sources
Collaborative research, virtual debate

Academic discussion groups and lists
Practice Public access

A museum's entire collection
Remote access

Virtual library
Remote access

Experience theatre
Remote, distributed, two-way access

Search engine offering access to 59 reference works
Public participation

Discussion list addressing romanticism in art criticism
Hypermedia technology Institutional functions Linking and documentation

Depot that will issue films and documentation on the Web
Virtual exibition, issue copies

Virtual exhibition of digital art
Virtual world, virtual theatres

An actor and a computer play roles in a virtual space

The web as a whole
Virtual academy

MIT's open courseware plans
Practice User-defined contextualisation

Films database with user profiling
Experience, retrieve copies

Digital library with on-line access to complete e-book

MUD client
User collaboration, user group

User-edited encyclopedia

Web laboratory
Community systems Institutional functions User-enabling software

Commercial software for digital depot building
User-enabling software

Software for building a community museum
User-enabling software

Software for building communities involved in interactive virtual theatre: public and commercial
User-enabling software

Software for creating a Web encyclopedia
User-enabling software

Organisation of software development by users of future academic community
Practice Self-organising depot

Film database maintained by user community
Self-organising library, etc.

Community virtual museum
Self-organising game, world, community

Toolkit for building virtual theatres by user groups
Self-organising encyclopedia

Distributed software for user group encyclopedia
Self-organising group academy

Platform for anyone who wants to teach or study courses or do scientific experiments

The Cultural Depot and Its Models

The ideal of the cultural depot is based on shared values related to preserving objects of cultural interest. The ideal library collects as many books as possible and offers an occasion to find specific works and consult or borrow these. Museums and archives embody the same values. The theatre is the place where live performances of concerts and plays are presented. The encyclopedia is an ideal that is not associated with a place, but with the idea of central access to knowledge, enabled by assembling and systematising. The academy fosters the value of enquiry and debate. Instead of reviewing all five ideals in detail, let us concentrate on one example. The ideal of a cultural depot embodies the function of collecting as many cultural objects of a certain kind, e.g., a large collection of films, storing them in one place and preserving them in essentially the same state. For many people the ideal depot is complete in the sense that (a copy of) every item of cultural value is reported to and in the end stored in a depot. A depot is usually part of an institution that has as its objective to safeguard cultural heritage from the ravages of time. Cultural functions branch into tasks and means. A depot is a large space that is optimally fit for preservation purposes. It is the specialist's domain and, true to its main objective, the depot is not open to external visitors other than experts who have special permission to view the objects under strict conditions.

The traditional model for the cultural depot involves technologies for storage, preservation and retrieval. For instance, storage and retrieval technologies include climate control and transport from and to a desk; preservation techniques involve prescriptions for chemical treatments, and so on. Descending from the traditional model, we meet the first changes brought about by technology. Digitising plus networking refers to the possibility of making digital copies of items and storing them in a distributed manner in different locations connected via a network. Such a scattered collection can be accessed as one single depot, and its distributed nature can even be hidden from sight. These functions are influential in changing public practices, trading exclusive admission for public access. The conservator's goal-directed visit gives way to public access over the Internet. An arbitrary example is the metamorphosis of the Netherlands Film Museum's poster depot into an online information system, enabling public access to tens of thousands of digital copies of posters and possibly hundreds of films over the museum's intranet and over the Internet in the near future [7].

Hypermedia technology, that is, interactive multimedia information systems with embedded hyper-references, alters the model further. Hypermedia, introduced after digitising and network technology, adds to the model that documentation can be added to each item, at as many levels of depth as one wishes, and separate items can be linked. For instance, a number of Greek vases from a collection ordered as to period and region, can be linked to each other on the basis of a theme, e.g., ‘play,’ and these can be linked to wall frescoes with the same theme. In this way ‘virtual collections’ come into being, grouping items that were widely separated in the first instance. Each individual item may be a member of an unlimited number of virtual collections. In the hypermedia model we encounter a discrete leap in the cultural depot's functions, as every single item may acquire added contextual meaning because of its links with others. As a result, this model appears to go beyond the traditional depot ideal, moving towards the library/archive/museum. However, it may be argued that the change in model is less radical than it would seem, because the ideal of a depot has always been linked to that of a library, archive or museum. Larger collections have only rarely been stored and preserved without any underlying system and documentation, and without being shown to some public. The least we can say in this respect is that the ideal has always been to collect and preserve cultural objects, not for their own sake, but in order to pass knowledge about them on to others.

The term community systems refers to software that aims to empower the users of information systems by giving them control of search and selection. This software enables users to communicate among themselves in a way that transforms the use of information systems from a one-way process in which a provider sends data to individual users into one in which a collective of users takes the responsibility of providing each other with meaningful information. Although the Internet was set up with this idea in mind, its takeover by commercial enterprises has overwhelmed the community idealists who were initially found in the scientific research world and later among proponents of anti-governmental politics. But at present we are witnessing a comeback of online community services, and this time they are receiving support from the informatics industry rather than being usurped by it. The most popular way to achieve user control is to have individual users profit from the experience of others. Communities on the Internet with special interests rate films, books, music and so on, in order for all members to find and select what they want. As a result, common depots are easy to create. All sorts of commercial software can be obtained to set up community depots and archives for music, texts, pictures, photographs and other content materials. At this moment anybody can start an Internet special interest group for free and post their favourite digital objects with attached information in a group store. Typically, one of the members manages the group, controlling access and updating the store. There are alternative models of leadership that I will not discuss here. In any case, the difference with the older list server systems is twofold: you do not need knowledge of system or server management, and commercial enterprises lend services to your group in return for placing their ads and those of associated commercial partners on your pages. In spite of – or maybe thanks to – its commercial support, the distributed and networked store is a community depot in the most literal sense of the word. It is amazing how easily users grant access to their hard disk directories, giving up a subjective sense of privacy as well as an objective barrier to all kinds of tracking and hacking initiated by unknown visitors.

Another trend may join the current generation of community systems, namely autonomous systems. These are pieces of software having some ‘intelligence’ sufficient for executing tasks on behalf of the user, without the latter exerting continuous and detailed control over the software's behaviour. The software can learn a user's profile, i.e., a particular combination of preferences for certain cultural objects, and then be ‘sent out’ into cyberspace as autonomous agents [2, 8] to search all digital depots for cultural objects on the Internet that the user would like and would consider downloading. In this way, each user can set up his or her virtual depot, based on partly implicit collection rules. For instance, an agent may detect a user's taste for films that are indexed as non-fiction and from a period between 1910 and 1920, even if the user him- or herself is not aware of any preference for genre and period. The agent may then roam through cyberspace, gathering such films in the service of the user's ‘unconscious desires.’***

Why would any user be happy with the autonomy of their selection systems? Is not shopping the real fun of buying the things that you need? Autonomy is a desirable characteristic for the user-public, given the exponential growth of supplies. The joint effects of simultaneous operation of numerous autonomous systems may be far reaching. Within the autonomous systems model, depots can become truly self-organising, when the institution or person supplying the films would use autonomous agents as well. When they do, customer agents of many users can ‘negotiate’ with various provider agents. Customer and provider agents can form alliances among themselves, for example through customer-to-customer referral, but also with each other, as in package deals between consumer and provider agents. Self-organising depots such as film archives will come into being to the degree that both customers and providers rely on autonomous agents to work for them without direct control. Theoretically it is possible that cooperating agents could link parts of provider-defined depots into virtual and distributed ones that exist beyond the awareness of both parties. These opaque virtual depots may continuously change as to number, size, composition and location. Any individual user would know only a subset of items from one or more of the virtual depots at any point in time.

The radical change with current cultural functions and practices that the community model enables is that the role of institutions and that of the public are being integrated. The consumer of culture does not merely visit a depot in order to obtain what he or she wants, but creates and maintains depots, and so becomes a provider of content him or herself. Collaborating consumer-providers may become powerful independent antipodes of current depot institutions. Intelligent software may transform communities with more or less traditional leadership – e.g., one person started the first depot or is in charge of the Internet group – into self-organising groups. However, the technology enabling such a model is not so far yet. Collaborating autonomous systems, which behave independently from the user as to return unpredictable but still-wanted results, are in an experimental stage at best. Nevertheless, current technology is sufficient to render every cultural consumer an independent provider and to connect individual consumer-providers to become a self-organising cultural community. What is more, the creative power of imaginative individuals proves to be sufficient for the – at least quantitative – success of present, relatively simple community software, as a visit to a Yahoo! special interest group inventory will reveal.

Community systems and, a fortiori, self-organisation practices conflict with the functions of traditional institutions. User-initiated and managed depots (e.g., Napster), museums, libraries, encyclopedias and academies are booming, and only few of these are modelled after their antipode in the traditional world of culture. In particular, it seems that they have traded institutionalised expertise for peer user recommendation and, in many cases, popularity among peer users. Whether or not this is the case needs further inquiry. The shift may also be an optical illusion, due to the type of cultural objects that are gathered and shared in the digital world, with entertainment fare outnumbering cultural heritage and contemporary art and high culture. If it is not illusory, then traditional depots and libraries/archives/museums will have to struggle hard in order to remain in control of established standards of quality.

Dynamic Ideals of Culture Transfer

What can we learn from an attempt to track changes in models and ideals? Radically different as functions and practices of the cultural depot may look from one technological model to the other, in fact they are still based on the same ideal: the concentration and preservation of objects for showing. The same goes for the other ideals, as following the links in Table 1 will illustrate. The Web museum offers access to selected and documented works of art; the virtual theatre directs and presents spectacles; the online encyclopedia offers systematised knowledge; and the virtual academy offers a forum for researching, debating and learning about these. New functions have essentially enlarged the public, enriched the content, increased the size by orders of magnitude and improved way-finding within the ocean of cultural content. The new technologies have improved the basic functions related to the ideal in two ways.

First, they have realised functions that were part of the ideal, but had not been implemented in previous models of cultural transfer. For instance, opening up the depots to the public has been the conservator's nightmare not because it was undesirable in itself, but because it was detrimental to another function, namely preservation. Digitising plus network technology reconciled the two functions, as digital copies are not affected by use. As a second example, consider the fact that the academy ideal included public debate, whereas in practice academic discussion was reserved to those who had acquired certain specialised knowledge that was not accessible to others. The model of self-organised education makes for a wider and life-long access to the academy. The academy is split up in numerous forums with varying entrance levels. More generally, public access and participation are part of most cultural ideals and have been facilitated by subsequent technologies.

Second, new technologies have contributed to old ideals by generating potential income from added functions and expansion of practice, which is an indirect and global support of the functions of the joint ideals. Added functions, such as remote access and viewing on demand, are in part paid services. Part of the revenues are reinvested by providers in improving transfer services. New practices have consisted of using and shaping these services. The current development of mobile services in the area of culture consumption are a case in point. But there is an alternative to boosting the centralised provider system. The self-organisation model may lend itself to an economy where the majority of players are independent, small-scale actors, earning about as much as is needed to afford the desired level of consumption. It should be noted that considerable advances have to be made yet in the implementation of payment services in order for this model to be viable in ways other than by appealing to the good will of fellow users. An accepted standard for micropayments has yet to be adopted to elevate payment above the primitive practice of voluntary donations via traditional means such as credit cards and even money orders.

Cultural ideals change only slowly, but they may move and merge across institutions swiftly as a result of technological change. As we have seen, the three models have brought the ideal depot closer to the ideal library/archive/museum, in that it came to incorporate exhibition functions and experience/learning practices. A comparable horizontal integration is found if we examine the effects of the three technologies on models related to the other ideals listed in Table 1. The depot becomes a museum. The museum adopts characteristics of a theatre (live shows) and an academy (virtual debates about research). The encyclopedia becomes an academy when users deliver content that is reviewed by peers before being added as a new lemma. The academy in turn may have its own very unusual local depots that present researched objects together with analytic tools in each digital scientific document instead of presenting only the outcomes of analyses and referring to an unconnected database as in the traditional paper format.

Another integration is that of functions and practices. A glimpse at Table 1 shows that users do not only become active in realising the depot ideal (user-defined contextualisation, user-managed and owned depots), but also get to play an active role in the other ideals. They can be active not only as spectators in a 3-D virtual theatre, but also as virtual actors. They do not only follow academic debates through a network, but they can also participate in research. More generally, self-organisation implies that users are less dependent on institutions. Once they have objects or copies of objects available, even in modest quantity or quality, they too can act as a tiny cultural institution. The example of Napster has shown how consumers turn into providers. Users may combine the power of consumer and provider software and turn from amateur users into professional providers. Meanwhile, the main function of the old institutions can be to publish software that enables users to act in one or more of these roles, without loss of quality of services.

The consistency of cultural ideals, then, is evident when it is realised that most functions and practices remain, while new models add to these and contribute to reshuffling ideals across institutions, and institutions across ideals. The occurrence of new functions and practices does not result in the old ones vanishing. Originals have to be kept in store and in shape (depot); new originals have to be catalogued and will remain to be viewed in situ (library/archive/museum); live performance of actors and musicians will remain as an ever more exclusive event and attractive as the actualisation of a still-strong ideal (theatre); and so will the live debate in the academy. If this is so, then describing the new technological models of cultural functions and practices with a view to these ideals may be a reasonable alternative to losing track of the dazzling train of technical innovations that change the world of culture and the arts from day to day.

Concluding Remarks

The proposal for describing continuity and change in cultural functions and practices is tentative in more than one respect. First, finer distinctions may be made as to ideals and models of cultural transfer. Depending on definitions of culture, the market (for cultural objects), the parliament, the courtroom and the chronicle (the ideal of public history and journalism) could be added to the five ideals. Second, the ideals are not completely separate, as we have seen. A depot belongs to a library or museum, and an academy can incorporate an encyclopedia. Another complication that should be dealt with in one way or another is that various cultural institutions can be subsumed under more than one ideal. For instance, a local folklore museum in situ, realises the ideals of the museum and the theatre. However, the point to be made is that, depending on the width of the time frame assumed in describing change, one can keep track of changes within one and the same ideal as a function of technological (and other) developments. Third, and perhaps most importantly, keeping track of the changes is helpful in reconsidering the meaning of the ideals of cultural transfer time and again, as we should do. For instance, we have to ask what the nature and role is of quality standards for knowledge and experience of cultural objects in a changing technological environment. Does self-organisation inevitably imply a loss of cultural historical knowledge and awareness, or, as some pessimists state it, does it favour an endless accumulation of ignorance? Is there room for the knowledge of the old institutions to disseminate within self-organising cultural transfer communities? We need a set of criteria for evaluating the quality – and desirability – of cultural transfer functions and practices within new technological and economic models, in order to remain aware of how they relate to our ideals, to reformulate them and to readjust to new models and ideals.


The author is indebted for the helpful comments of three anonymous reviewers, and to Hermineke van Bockxmeer, Eelco Bruinsma, Dick Rijken and Leo Welters for their stimulating discussions on the subject. The research presented here was supported in part by the Dutch Culture Ministry.


In designing advanced technology for the future, developers go a long way to start from user needs and requirements, made explicit as much as possible. Scenarios, simulated systems and prototypes are pre-tested by intended users. However, they often meet the problem that users do not know what to do with a potential system, however detailed and interactive its presentation and however ‘intuitive’ the user interface may be. For instance, a test of an experimental system for searching video images by content that seemed to combine and shortcut several current tasks after a careful work-flow analysis, seemed utterly useless to documentalists working in a television archive. But when a user interface was added to the system that closely mimicked the ones in use for traditional specialist tasks, such as indexing by viewing separate shots, they reacted with great enthusiasm, even if the potential of the system had been limited to current practice [6].

For a proposal see Christopher Freeman, who distinguishes 1) incremental innovation, what we have referred to as a change of current ways, from 2) radical innovation, mostly involving a technological shift and going beyond normal variations inherent in creative practices, and 3) new technological systems that spring from a complex of changes, including social, cultural and economic ones [3].

A simulation of an auction with agents as bidders/buyers, can be found at


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About the Author

Ed Sioe-Hao Tan is a professor of Word and Image Studies at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, The Netherlands. He is involved in designing information systems for access to the cultural heritage. Examples include a web site for literary education and a system for automated archiving of video materials. His research interests further include emotion in the experience of media and arts. For more information, see the Third Biennial International Symposium.

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