Curation: A History Part II

The Building Blocks of High Technology

This is part 2 of a 7 article series that examines the technological history and theory behind the curation of human thought and discovery. You can read part 1 here.

The brevity of life presented a challenge to the human race. The need to record and transfer knowledge for the benefit and survival of future generations pushed our ancestors to develop symbols, art, and the printed word. This global effort to curate thought and discoveries would usher in technical advancements that impact our lives to this day.

With a largely illiterate population, there was also a pressing need for more accessible forms of curation. It would be the development of recorded sound, photos, and film that would take curation to even greater heights.

The Eyes and Ears of Curation

The written word was a monumental achievement, but it had one major weakness: you needed to understand how to read it. If you didn’t speak the language or couldn’t read at all it was of no use to you. The value of flesh and blood curation was that if you needed an answer you got it from another human through speech. This was not the case with writing. It wasn’t until recorded sound and the phonograph (thanks to Thomas Edison) that human beings were able to listen to curated ideas and music. Much like paper, one could record their thoughts via speaking so that others could access those thoughts by listening and not reading. By not needing to know how to write in order to record, it also allowed more people to share their thoughts and increased the capabilities of curation even further.

Sound recording and mass-produced writing gave humanity a foundation for accessible curation that, while still not fully democratized, allowed us to better save human thought for future generations. But another technology developed almost forty years before the first phonograph was exiting its nascent stages and on its way to playing a major role in documenting the human experience. That technology was photography.

Much like sound recording, photography was valuable for its ability to communicate to the illiterate. Even more than that, photos could be appreciated by those who couldn’t understand the language. Art has always been an indispensable aspect of curation. Even today, paintings from hundreds (and even thousands) of years ago help us understand the past. But much of this art was reflective. It was an artists rendition of something they had heard about or seen. It wasn’t painted in the moment. Who can say if a painting accurately presents its subject matter, the artist may have had a political motive or may have forgotten a vital detail of the scene. Art (particularly painting) was a great way to capture a moment in history for future investigation but it was far from accurate.

This was not the case with photos. With the exception of photo editing, photography provided a way to visually capture moments in time without the need for (error prone) human transcription. It was now possible to reliably curate human thought and also events. Along with recorded sound, photography enabled the curation of more accurate firsthand accounts from a wider variety of sources. It should come as no surprise that the combination of those two technologies would give us an even more powerful medium in the form of film and video.

Bringing It All Together Part I

Film and video continue to do much of the heavy lifting in curation today. No other medium is more accessible by more people than moving pictures aligned with sound. The eventual capability to record events expanded on the accuracy of record offered by photos. It removed the guesswork around still images and added the context of before, during, and after as well as the sound that connected all three stages. It expanded the kinds of stories that could be told and the thoughts that could be saved. Besides writing, film stands as one of the world’s greatest achievements in preserving discoveries and ideas.

Film’s evolution into television and personal recording devices expanded on its accessibility even more and allowed curation to take place by average individuals in ways still not possible in writing due to the publishing industry’s monopoly on the written word. Putting technology in the hands of normal people for the purpose of mass curation wouldn’t end with the introduction of the camcorder. Only a few decades following the first color TV, the Internet would go mainstream and change the world of curation forever.

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