Constructing a Digital Public Space

31st Mar 2012

The following article was authored by Bill Thompson, Drew Hemment, Rachel Cooper, Charlie Gere on behalf of The Creative Exchange

The term Digital Public Space is being used by a growing number of cultural bodies to describe the online environment which will emerge as they make their digitised collections more available to each other and to the wider world. It expresses the growing desire to offer anyone, wherever they may be, the opportunity to access, explore and create online. It will open up collections of films, photographs, television programmes, books and much of the rest of the amazing material currently held in our museums, galleries, broadcasters and other memory institutions.
Looking beyond these cultural archives, it may include public information from open data stores, user-generated content, and data trails which individuals are able to control and trade. It will also include, where owners permit, material from the commercial world too.The digital media we produce is 'out there' waiting to be accessed and assembled in new ways. It creates threads connecting us through time. Our audience, or our collaborators, may be people looking back at us and our creations in twenty years time.

Within the Digital Public Space every digital asset that can be shared will be shared, and as we digitise more of the analogue past this could stretch to encompass the whole of recorded culture.The Digital Public Space will be a high street, not a shopping mall. It is intended to constitute a public space that supports many activities and can sustain private, political, cultural and commercial uses without being dominated by any or appropriated by one group or model.
It relies entirely on the open Internet and full access to all it offers, on which will be built the standards, tools and services needed to create a commons, owned by nobody, accessible to all, outside the commercial imperative and free of state influence, an online space for interaction, engagement and experience, that can be used to inform, educate and entertain those who visit it.
It will be an online space that meets the needs of the cultural sector and the arts and which offers unparalleled opportunities to find and engage with audiences but it not be exclusively for this sector and will support and sustain other areas of activity.It will not be primarily a space for commercial activity but it will offer opportunities for commercial transactions and support all the necessary mechanisms and tools needed to make these trustworthy.

Like the Internet itself the Digital Public Space will not be owned by anyone, but will be constituted from the collaborative activity of all those who join it, existing as the shared space between their services, content and tools. It will grow as its constituent membership grows.

It will contain all that its constituent organisations wish to make available, whether born digital, fully digitised or a digital representation of a physical artefact, drawing on the world’s cultural heritage in all its forms and variety. The Digital Public Space will make new forms of collaborative work possible in ways that as yet are not even imagined. It offers not just new means of making the things we already make, but of developing new forms of culture, based around shared catalogues and metadata and simple licensing of material.

The Digital Public Space has emerged as a framework for thinking about the ways in which the arts and culture will reshape themselves in the screen-based, online world that FutureEverything has foretold and shaped for many years. The Digital Public Space makes new paradigms for cultural engagement for creators, audiences and institutions built around shared data models, open interfaces and standards for authentication, rights management and identity, but we do not yet have a clear idea of what that will enable or how it will be deployed.

The goal, therefore, is to look at the Digital Public Space from all angles, to challenge and refine the core ideas, explore the current and future technologies that could sustain it, and ask about its real value to artists, institutions and the public whom it is supposed to serve.

One question is whether it can release public value or simply whether it offers another way for larger institutions and corporations that hold rights to assert their hegemony, and lock the public out, and explore the technological barriers that stand in the way of delivering a genuinely public online service.



FutureEverything 2013

Work to build the Digital Public Space is already ongoing, with Europeana offering a model for a comprehensive catalogue of digitised cultural assets, ResearchSpace showing how linked data can transform academic research and The Space, the Arts Council England/BBC experimental service, delivering digital art to multiple devices during summer 2012.

The festival programme at FutureEverything 2013 will make the Digital Public Space theme come alive by presenting artworks, prototypes and experiences that build on these projects. Such interventions can push at the possible, to chip away at the barriers, to show that it can, and must, be done.


Published in Hemment, D., Gere, C eds (2012) FutureEverybody. FutureEverything Reports (ISBN 978-0-9568958-2-0), a collection of short texts published to coincide with FutureEverything 2012 in March 2012.