On seams and edges

Recently I submitted the abstract below for ALIA Information Online 2015. I haven’t heard yet whether it’s been accepted, but I thought I’d post it here anyway because, even if I don’t get to talk about it at the conference, I want to think about the topic some more. If nothing else, this is an extended NTS…

Many thanks to @edsu and @nowviskie for pointing me towards ideas of ‘repair’ and ‘broken world thinking’, which I reckon will help me develop the arguments I was gesturing towards earlier this year in a talk on The Future of Trove. In that talk I drew on some of my old research on the nature of progress to describe a future for Trove that avoided visions of technological power and sophistication:

The future of Trove shouldn’t be envisaged in terms of slick interfaces and fast search (though I’d like some more of that).

The future of Trove will be messy, it will be complicated, and it will be complicated, because life is just like that, and while Trove is built of metadata, it’s powered by the people that contribute, use, share and annotate that metadata.

Life can also be disappointing, painful and disturbing, and all of that too must figure in the future of Trove.

It’s important to try and see Trove as a series of accommodations, agreements, and annotations, rather than as a big aggregation machine. There’s a fragility in the connections that we make that needs to be understood. There’s no inevitability here, but many acts of goodwill, generosity, and repair.

More to come on this, I hope… (I’m also collecting some relevant bits and pieces in Zotero.)

On seams and edges — dreams of aggregation, access & discovery in a broken world

Visions of technological utopia often portray an increasingly ‘seamless’ world, where technology integrates experience across space and time. Edges are blurred as we move easily between devices and contexts, between the digital and the physical.

But Mark Weiser, one of the pioneers of ubiquitous computing, questioned the idea of seamlessness, arguing instead for ‘beautiful seams’ — exposed edges that encouraged questions and the exploration of connections and meanings.

With discovery services and software vendors still promoting ‘seamless discovery’ as one of their major selling points, it seems the value of seams and edges requires further discussion. As we imagine the future of a service such as Trove, how do we balance the benefits of consistency, coordination and centralisation against the reality of a fragmented, unequal, and fundamentally broken world.

This paper will examine the rhetoric of ‘seamlessness’ in the world of discovery services, focusing in particular on the possibilities and problems facing Trove. By analysing both the literature around discovery, and the data about user behaviours currently available through Trove, I intend to expose the edges of meaning-making and explore the role of technology in both inhibiting and enriching experience.

How does our dream of comprehensiveness mask the biases in our collections? How do new tools for visualisation reinforce the invisibility of the missing and excluded? How do the assumptions of ‘access’ direct attention away from practical barriers to participation?

How does the very idea of systems and services, of complex and powerful ‘machines’ ready to do our bidding, discourage us from seeing the many, fragile acts of collaboration, connection, interpretation, and repair that hold these systems together?

Trove is an aggregator and a community; a collection of metadata and a platform for engagement. But as we imagine its future, how do avoid the rhetoric of technological power, and expose its seams and edges to scrutiny.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Tim Sherratt Written by:

I'm a historian and hacker who researches the possibilities and politics of digital cultural collections.


  1. September 11, 2014

    Beautiful technology: On seams and edges — dreams of aggregation, access & discovery in a broken world http://t.co/ZbAuxgsVCH

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