In her TEDtalk, Fei Fei Li proposes to teach computers how to decipher images the way we teach children. Of course, the machines are unable to gather the needed data themselves, so the starting point of this experiment was to provide them with over billion categorized, described images that were meant to trigger the learning process in the computer. Using Big Data to train computer algorithms doesn’t seem as revolutionary to us now, but certainly it took some time to adjust to the idea that learning of computer could be similar to that of a child – if we tell it what the object is enough times, eventually it will learn how to do it by itself. But is it the right approach? I can see the appeal of such trained machine, how useful it could be in a research that looks at large data sets and how dramatically it could speed up the analysis process. Although I enthusiastically cheer for technological progress I cannot help but worry that we might loose some of the most valuable information, one I keep going back to in nearly every post: socio-cultural context.
The most difficult part of an analysis of a photograph is the realization that it never exists in a contextual vacuum. Chosen subject, technique used and execution of the shot contains a lot of valuable information about the photograph as a material object, but also about the social meaning behind it. Although the focus of an audience automatically goes to the captured image, it is important not only to ponder upon the reason of why this and not other image was chosen by the author, but also to understand in what context its physical copy exists. Hence, one could argue that the most challenging aspect of digitalization of a photograph, especially historical ones, lies in preserving this contextual materiality.
The invention of various 3D recording techniques presented the society with an opportunity not only to preserve precious cultural heritage, but also to analyse these objects without fear of damaging them as well as make the digitalized objects available to the public. Although it might appear that the mission of various national cultural heritage institutions is to democratize knowledge and provide public access to it (Samuelson 2015), the need to control the asset remains. In this sense, copyright debate surrounding 3D recordings acts both as an obstacle and safety net.