Annals of Curation: ‘Curated Computing’

May 24, 2010 · Print This Article

I’ve been following the ‘curation’ meme for awhile now, and find its latest iteration particularly fascinating. Whereas in the recent past, the term ‘curated’ has tended to crop up in marketing and shopping-related contexts (i.e. “to curate” = “to pick and choose,” “to select,” or at its most base, “to shop around so others don’t have to”), last week I noticed that the term is now being slung around by those on both sides of the iPad/Apple wars. In an article titled Curated Computing: What’s Next for Devices in a Post-iPad World, on ars technica, analyst Sarah Rotman Epps puts a new spin on what’s already become a tired (and annoyingly mis-applied) buzz-word, arguing,

There is something very significant about the iPad beyond how many units it will sell: it’s changing how we think about the PC. The iPad creates a use case for a device that doesn’t do everything your laptop does, targeted at a consumer that uses devices more for consumption than production. The iPad ushers in a new era of personal computing that we call “Curated Computing”—a mode of computing where choice is constrained to deliver less complex, more relevant experiences. Let me repeat that, because it’s the essence of the Curated Computing experience: less choice; more relevance.

Oof! The connotations of the word ‘curation’ just get worse and worse, don’t they? “Less choice; more relevance?” Here, the verb curation isn’t merely equated with shopping; it signifies exclusivity and an active process of kicking the riff-raff out of the so-called “walled garden” of Eden that Apple has created and actively cultivates (or polices, depending on your point of view). You can watch a YouTube video of Epps describing her “curated computing” concept in (slightly) further detail here; I think it’s pretty dumb myself, but you can judge for yourself whether the idea of ‘curating’ in this context provides a useful conceptual metaphor or just trendy b.s..

In The Death of the Open Web, NYT Magazine columnist Virginia Heffernan used the term ‘curation’ to drive a related train of thought. In yesterday’s Magazine, Heffernan describes the Web as “a teeming commercial city…where Malware and spam have turned living conditions in many quarters unsafe and unsanitary” and “bullies and hucksters roam the streets.” Before, she argues, there was no way that Web denizens could escape the rabble. The rise of the iPhone, the iPad and the ubiquitous app, however, are now allowing users to migrate into the online equivalent of a gated community in the ‘burbs. Heffernan goes so far as to liken it to “white flight.” She writes,

In spite of a growing consensus about the dangers of Web vertigo and the importance of curation, there were surprisingly few “walled gardens” online — like the one Facebook purports to (but does not really) represent.

But a kind of virtual redlining is now under way. The Webtropolis is being stratified. Even if, like most people, you still surf the Web on a desktop or laptop, you will have noticed pay walls, invitation-only clubs, subscription programs, privacy settings and other ways of creating tiers of access. All these things make spaces feel “safe” — not only from viruses, instability, unwanted light and sound, unrequested porn, sponsored links and pop-up ads, but also from crude design, wayward and unregistered commenters and the eccentric ­voices and images that make the Web constantly surprising, challenging and enlightening.

Heffernan’s analogies are powerful and persuasive, although I do think she’s romanticizing some of the cruddier aspects of internet citizenry a bit.  In any case, Hefferman’s use of  the term ‘curation’ in this context aligns curators with those snooty, front lawn-obsessed Homeowners Associations and NIMBY-types, if not with community policing.

And finally Eliot van Burskirk, in an article written for Wired last week, took a jab at Epps’ opportunistic deployment of what he describe as “a well-worn meme” while acknowledging that Epps is undoubtedly “on to something” in her use of the term curated. Van Burskirk, tongue loosely planted in cheek, goes Epps one better and dubs this “The Age of Curation.”

Curation is the positive flip side of Apple’s locked-down approach, decried as a major, negative development in computing by many observers, present company included. Who would have thought that in 2010, so many people would pay good money for a computer that only runs approved software?

It runs counter to the idea, prized by geeks, that computing equals freedom. If it were Microsoft doing this, we’d all be storming the Gates with torches and pitchforks.

Nonetheless, the Age of Curation (see? anyone can coin a catchphrase) began long before today’s conversation about curated computing. In this Age of Digital Excess (oops, there I go again), we’re surrounded by too much music, too much software, too many websites, too many feeds, too many people, too many of their opinions and so on.

Curation is already fundamental to the way in which we view the world these days, and the iPad is hardly the first technology to recognize this.

I don’t have a dog in the walled garden vs. the riff-raff, suburb vs. gritty city, the iPad vs. Freedom of All that Is Good and True argument. I’m more interested in the ways that the terms curator and curation, which once had such dusty connotations, are undergoing a semiotic rejuvenation of sorts. Its meanings are not confined to a single realm of experience anymore – the curator has finally broken free of the White Cube. Alas, the white cube seems only to lead out into a Walled Garden, but I guess you have to take what you can get.

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