We Are Smarter Than Me (a “stories of art” variant)

An early experimental option of our local image library system DigiBeeld has been the possibility to relate two (reproductions of) works of art by way of short textual statements (arguments). In class we reflected on the chances offered by such links. Would it be possible to tell “stories of art” with these bipolar links as a sort of building blocks? What kind of structuring would be needed to arrive at results that were more than just curios?

Some time ago Geoffrey Rockwell in one of his Research Notes (2007/03/02) pointed at a “a large scale community writing experiment” led by Wharton Business School, MIT Sloan School of Management, Pearson, and Shared Insights, entitled We Are Smarter Than Me (We > Me). The project started mid 2006 and it is about business, although not the arts & humanities business in the first place. Look it up here: http://www.wearesmarter.org/.

Essentially the project is aimed at a better understanding of the power of collaborative writing. To publish an actual book is the objective. We > Me uses a wiki – a computer application enabling text production and text editing by multiple authors – with some clear principles of how the structure of the book should be realized. Participants can write sections, admit others (or all community members) to become co-authors of sections, whereas sections are organized in chapters. These chapters are initiated and more or less supervized by the founders of the project, but participants may contribute to the outline of chapters and may even suggest alternative chapters and chapter outlines. And should controversies about the organization of content arise, a voting system will come up with the solution. A full description can be found in a public Community Proposal (accessed at 2007/03/08).

Does it work? That remains to be seen. I signed in as a co-author and inspected the scriptorium, only to conclude that much needs to be done in many sections, especially towards the end of the book.

This experiment in social knowledge construction reminded me of collaboratively creating works of art [cf. The One Million “Masterpiece”; brackets are mine], collections of works of art [cf. Wikimedia Commons], and expositions [cf. Your Gallery @ the Guardian]. And than we had this unpretentious test in DigiBeeld, mentioned above. Our test in fact started from sort of a combination of Vannevar Bush’s idea of blazing trails [BUSH 1945] and Randall Trigg’s concept of “typed links” [TRIGG 1983]. It focussed on telling stories of art.

Students were asked to do several things. They had to:

  • …upload a small number of high quality digital reproductions to DigiBeeld (result: a collection of choice images);
  • …add appropriate descriptions (metadata) to these images (result: retrievable images);
  • …select one specific work of art from their own contribution, and link it in a meaningful way to reproductions uploaded by others (result: a star of substantiated bipolair links);
  • …create bipolar links focused on a particualr perspective in between objects of art collected by fellow students (result: similar typed links, distributed all over the image collection).

…in order to construct narratives (image sequences). Needless to say this is different from creating a simultaneous presentation of images of some sort. Here we have a visualization of the procedure:

One instruction we considered especially significant, viz.: Make your argumentation the subject of constant concern. Write annotations that are lucid and sound. Your motivation for creating a bipolar link, and thus associating (two) works of art, must be considered a public statement. It will be available for use by others, but it will be open to criticism as well. In short: the student had to be very precise in communicating both a “rhetoric of departure” and a “rhetoric of arrival” [CARTER 2000] in one and the same annotation.

Now how could subsequent users extract more or less meaninful sequences (or patterns) of arguments – and thus pairs of works of art – from the socially constructed database? In principle there are two options for this: either they must be allowed to do free text searches within the recorded arguments, or the system could be designed in such a way as to enable labeling arguments with predescribed concepts. Examples of the latter:

  • discussion of materials and technique
  • remarks on foreground-background peculiarities
  • on mimesis
  • notes on semantics


These conceptual attributes or annotations may be used as a filter during the selection of nodes (actually: image pairs). This way it is easy to start from a reduced base of raw materials when preparing a trail.

Here is a powerpoint presentation of one particular trail that emerged from students’ contributions – sorry, it is just a tryout – don’t expect highly intellectual readings. And sorry, it is quite bulky (3 Mb) and some arguments are worded in Dutch:

trail “Miscellaneous” [from: Digibeeld, d.d. 20060608]

Perhaps one day – thanks to “the others” – we will be able to compose our lectures within minutes?

Leave a Reply