We are all connected

Sembl is all about connectedness – and I love that the kids who helped us playtest totally got that. Maybe by playing Sembl we really will save the world :) With that in mind, I present a music video from the wonderful Symphony of Science.

Thinking linking – Sembl data

Because Sembl will be a system for generating data, I’ve been worrying about how we can ensure that the data it generates is well-structured so that it is machine-readable and thereby linked to other data and reusable in aggregation. But because both linked open data (LOD) and Sembl itself are all about relationships, whenever I try to think it through my thoughts become tangled.

In this post I attempt to order my thoughts around linked data as it pertains to Sembl – specifically, I seek a better understanding of entities, identities and similitude. Whoa. We had better start with a picture.

This is a cannon in the collection of the National Museum of Australia. If you look at our information about the cannon,  you can see that it was:

and that there are various dates associated with it:
  • made circa 1725–50
  • used 1768–70
  • jettisoned 11 June 1770
  • salvaged 1969

It would be great if all those references – to the Endeavour, Cook, the Great Barrier Reef and all those dates – were linked to all the other references to those things on the web. Then, you could find out much more about the boat, the person, the place and the time.

That is the dream of linked data – to enable machines to recognise an entity wherever it is mentioned on the world wide web.

So what does it require of us as a web publisher or as a designer of a system for generating online data? Any time we publish a chunk of web content, we should bundle in with the publication a set of pointers to relevant places, times, people and organisations associated with the entities mentioned in that content. In this way, we forge a link between our mention of Captain James Cook and all his other mentions elsewhere on the web. Tools for doing this do exist, but they remain curiously rare. (Try searching for a WordPress plugin that adds linked data to your blog content.)

But actually, identity-tracking is only one part of the LOD dream; there are many kinds of relationships other than ‘is the same as’. Imagine if there was a universally comprehensible language for describing the various relationships one entity has with other entities.

In my description, the cannon was

  • ‘on board’ the Endeavour
  • ‘used by’ Cook
  • ‘jettisoned’ on the reef

But it could just as easily have been

  • ‘part of’ the Endeavour
  • ‘owned by’ Cook
  • ‘thrown onto’ the reef

How do we know how to cite the relationship so that the machines can parse it as we would want? That’s where ontologies and RDF triples (or quads!) come into the picture – whenever the relationship between two entities is more complex than ‘[x] [is the same as] [y] (according to [z])’. But that’s also where it becomes tricky to link data. We need a common vocabulary to describe and to arrange relationships that are not necessarily common or even clear to one person – let alone a global population!

There are many different ontologies out there and emerging; but so far none works especially well for museum objects. In fact, as I write this, there are discussions going on about sharing vocabularies for LODLAM (aka linked open data in libraries, archives and museums) as a step toward a shared understanding.

It’s difficult to imagine a single system for describing objects that would be universally agreeable. And as Tim informs me, the point is rather to connect the vocabularies rather than settle on one. But here’s a thought-stream about primary elements of museum object relationships: we would probably want to identify the object’s relationships to

  • people: ‘created by’, ‘used by’, ‘owned by’
  • places: ‘created at’, ‘used at’, ‘stored at’, and
  • events: ‘associated with’ – although vague, that concept seems important for museum objects whose potency is often by association with significant people or events
  • activities: ‘used during’ or ‘used for’
  • other objects: ‘made of’, ‘type of’, ‘part of’, ‘contains’, ‘used with’, ‘replaced’, ‘prototype of’

And so on. Although perhaps anything much more than that is more trouble than it’s worth? (I don’t know!)

And… Sembl data?

In the case of Sembl, data that players generate is intrinsically linked: the challenge of the game is to find a way in which one object relates to another. As a player you might draw on the machine-readable ‘other objects’ links; but if you relied solely on them, you might not fare very well in the game because to win points the relationship has to be ‘interesting’ – as defined by the other humans playing the game.

You might improve your chances if you identified a less direct relationship through a series of steps through the linked data. For example, you might find out that the seed object was used by someone who was the daughter of someone who was integral to an event that is represented by an object that you then select to play in the game. But that’s still a machine-like relationship and therefore a bit… uninteresting.

Part of the game’s awesomeness is that players generate new kinds of relationships – relationships that fit no predetermined ontological structure and which, sometimes, make you think differently. One key to this novelty is that players forge connections not from one thing to another but from one facet of a thing to another facet of another thing.

Triad of images and the resemblances between them

Whaleboats and thylacine are not intrinsically linked; the link coalesces between a particular facet of each thing. Players identify (describe) those facets as part of the game, as illustrated above.

As well as faceted, connections can be figurative or playful. In one game the above Thylacine ‘puppet’ was linked to a Welsh organ because the former is organ-less. In another game, 10-year-old children linked the Welsh organ to a set of convict leg irons because both work with keys.

Imagine trying to develop an ontology that worked for all those different linguistic twists. It would be as mind-melting as that Chinese animal taxonomy that Borges described; and it would be ever inadequate. Similitude resists containment.

So… Sembl and linked data?

After all this thinking – and the above is a lot clearer, I believe, than the crazy diagram I made when I started thinking this through – I reckon: we should not worry about creating linked data within the Sembl app. We should, however, endeavour to do the following:

  • Make the Museum’s collection database do the work of adding linked data about entities mentioned in the description of collection objects. (That’s big, and well beyond me and my Sembl project; but the wheels are in motion.)
  • Find a way to link representations of collection items created during gameplay to their entry in the collection database. (Again, this will not be easy although Tim’s object type browser might be a valuable first step.) Maybe the game app can award extra points to teams that link their proposed object to its authoritative Museum representation.
  • Capture the descriptive and relational information that players generate and connect it to the relevant fields in the collection database. So in the collection database, each object that has been used in Sembl will have player-generated descriptive and relational augmentation.

Those, then, are my thoughts – de-fuzzed to a degree by what felt like some strenuous mental exertion! What do you reckon? Can you spot any flaws in my thinking? (If so, please share!) Is this post useful for others thinking through linked data in relation to their own collections and applications?

Display case containing fine silverware and slave shackles

Identify sameness, explore difference

As part of his Mining the museum installation at Maryland Historical Society in 1992–93, artist Fred Wilson placed a set of shackles in a display case with fine silverware and titled it ‘Metalwork’.

Display case containing fine silverware and slave shackles

'Metalwork' by Fred Wilson, 1992

Pow. United by the metal of their fabrication, the racially-divided, hierarchical histories of these objects dramatically distances them:

Who served the silver? And who could have made the silver objects in apprenticeship situations? And […] whose labour could produce the wealth that produced the silver?

A general principle can be distilled from this. Perhaps: In the very moment we identify a similarity between two objects, we recognise their difference. In other words, the process of drawing two things together creates an equal opposite force that draws attention to their natural distance. So the act of seeking resemblance – consistency, or patterns – simultaneously renders visible the inconsistencies, the structures and textures of our social world. And the greater the conceptual distance between the two likened objects, the more interesting the likening – and the greater the understanding to be found.

This simultaneous pulling together and springing apart of the sociophysical world interests me, and I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Sembl, where the challenge of the game is to identify a way in which a given object is related – surprisingly or humorously or otherwise interestingly – to another object.

What constitutes ‘interesting’ is of course difficult to define and depends to a large degree on the particular players playing. But if the natural conceptual distance between the two related objects is great, the relationship is more likely to be interesting – perhaps because it enables you to think about something in a new way. That’s what made Wilson’s juxtaposition of shackles with silver tableware interesting, and powerful.

Juxtaposition: branding iron / Aboriginal breastplate

Labelling bodies

In the same vein, the Sembl players who linked the above branding iron to the breastplate – because both are tools for labeling bodies – cast new light on the colonial practice of giving metal breastplates to Aboriginal people.

My (big!) point here is: Hipbone games and Sembl alike can create a safe space for people to explore differences. When identified, similarities form bridges across and clarify difference. Attending to relatedness in this way inspires understanding; and opens a channel toward reconciliation.

Local kids playtest Sembl

This week we hosted a group of 23 local students, aged 9 to 11, to playtest Sembl and share their experience with us. It was very useful for us, and fun all round, so thanks, 4/5TM from Curtin Primary.

The backstory: transmit history, avert apocalypse

So where have the devices come from? Who made them and why? Thinking on this, I came up with a backstory:

A set of devices has been sent back from the future, after the apocalypse, when people have forgotten about the time before, what the world contained, how things worked, and what it all meant. They yearn to know of the richness and diversity of their former world; they want to learn about the past — our present – in an organic but semi-systematic way.

So they created a game-in-a-box that we past people can enjoy playing and which streams its generative data back into the future, through a hub device that orchestrates and prevents random data entry. The more games are played, the more the future folk remember and understand.

There is an ulterior motive, but it is not evil: it is only to prevent the apocalypse. Yes, the future folk hold firmly to a fragile hope that if people in the past could understand things better – if they would only pay more attention to how meaning is made – then the apocalypse may never happen. The future folk must be subtle; they must not reveal the disaster ahead – the past people must not be afraid! So they operate under a guise of intriguing frivolity, and own only half their purpose.

And why did they choose to send the devices to the National Museum of Australia? Well, that will be the subject of a future post…

A steampunk device

Very early on, our trusty developers had the idea to figure Sembl as a machine. Seeing as it’s an iPad app, we started to think about it as a handheld device, made of wood and metal, so *of course!* it wasn’t long before we started to draw on the wonderful steampunk zeitgeist for inspiration.

I wondered how faithful we could be to the figure of the device – how plausible (in a non-slavish way, of course) – so I started to sketch.

Hand-drawn sketch of a device with a button, a slot, an aperture and a key

Above is a rough (and dodgy!) early sketch of the spine of the device, where teams will register to play. Below is me dreaming up how a node on the gameboard might change as it becomes available and then filled with an object.

Hand-drawn sketch with notes of three connected nodes, one 'locked', one with an aperture and one filled with an image

These are early ideas; they may well be superseded by those of the visual designers… but drawing in this way helped me to think through the visual dynamics of gameplay and, yep, fed my already substantial enthusiasm for this project!

Sembl: conception

Dream announcement: the Museum is developing a prototype of an iPad game for teams of students visiting the physical space of the Museum. It’s called Sembl and I’m just a bit excited about it.

The game

Sembl is a game of relatedness. The challenge is to think about an object’s attributes – composition, shape, colour, use, provenance, whatever! – in order to find a way in which it relates to another object.

The aim is to occupy nodes on the gameboard, by making meaningful – and appealing – connections. In each round, players must identify an object and describe how it relates to existing objects on the board. Each round is time-limited, but teams need to take care to create connections that are interesting or delightful in some way – whoever proposes the best object and relationship wins the place on the gameboard.

Paper gameboard seeded with four items

Board design

We’ll provide a few different boards, to suit different player numbers and levels – we want kids as young as 10 to enjoy the game. Above is a sample board for four teams, which might work well for older children and adults. Seed content can be anything on display at the Museum but in this case all the objects are on display in our Landmarks gallery.

Origins

Sembl is based on a conceptual game that Charles Cameron aka @hipbonegamer has used for decades now – hipbone games – which take many forms and work for many purposes, from pure amusement through to thinking deeply about the connections between apparently disparate opposites. Charles’ games are in turn inspired by the glass bead game in the Herman Hesse novel of the same name.