The New Work of Composing

Composing with Metadata in Mind


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Introduction Layer

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What is “Standards in the Making”?

This chapter is an investigation of metadata through what we call a “Standards in the Making” (SITM) approach.

But what is “Standards in the Making”? What does it entail, and what does it produce as a practice of inquiry and composition? In this layer, each of the work’s four authors begin this investigation by situating themselves within the method—making a series of preliminary assertions about the objectives and values of the approach. In what follows, we will attempt to broadly outline the concept itself: the set of premises that inform our different trajectories.

We have adopted SITM from Bruno Latour’s work in Science in Action, where he proposes a “science in the making” approach to understand the processes, contexts and constitutive practices of scientific activity. This critical perspective breaks open and exposes the multiple processes that are often obscured by “ready made science.” This last aspect of science—the face “that knows”— is the account that science gives of itself in the aftermath of the myriad of institutional, technical and social processes which are only made visible by looking to the other face, “the other that does not know yet" (1987, p. 7) “Ready made” in the sense of supposedly providing and proceeding from universal, known and settled facts or definitions, this aspect of science is visible in the products of scientific endeavor and represented via the “orderly pattern of scientific method” abstracted from the multiple contexts which that method must negotiate.

But what does one find when looking for “science in the making”?  “[U]ncertainty, people at work, decisions, competition, controversies”—the whole “disorderly mixture” of strategies, institutions and investments which are inextricably a part of the context in which science does its work (p. 4). Instead of an efficient machine, we find a series of alliances and disagreements regarding how “efficiency” should be defined. Instead of stable truths, we find a series of attempts to construct the institutional and technical conditions by which the truth might be stabilized. For Latour, the recognition of these two faces is the starting point for a method for studying science in action: “We will enter facts and machines while they are in the making; we will carry with us no preconceptions of what constitutes knowledge; we will watch the closure of the black boxes and be careful to distinguish between two contradictory explanations of this closure, one uttered when it is finished, the other while it is being attempted" (p. 15).

This approach has a powerful bearing on the question of “standards” of all kinds, as they are often only visible in their “readymade,” received, closed forms. Certainly metadata standards for the organization of data and digital information systems assume a different character when perceived in the process of their conception. But, as Millerand and Bowker note in their investigation of the Ecological Metadata Language, “standardization”—or the process of enactment—is also a complex negotiation of institutions and local practices. For these authors:

[I]t does not make sense to see standards simply as things out there in the world that have a predetermined set of attributes. In information systems, standards are in constant flux—they have to migrate between communities and across platforms. Closure is a narrative that serves a purpose, not a fact that describes an event. (2009, p. 165)

Echoing Latour’s call to refuse closure, Millerand and Bowker remind us that that closure often also “serves a purpose” in obscuring the effects of standardization upon local practices of knowledge making and vice versa, thereby formally neglecting the ways in which various groups negotiate or re-purpose the standard within their own cognitive, social, cultural, and institutional contexts.

In focusing on standards in practice, Millerand and Bowker define the terrain upon which a critical consideration of (metadata) standards must operate. On one hand, “the capacity for distributed, collective scientific work practice is posited on the existence of shared information infrastructures and collaborative platforms . . . [which] in turn, require some base of shared standards” (150). But this emphasis should not be allowed to obscure the effects of metadata standards—the way that they “condition access to data, guarantee their integrity, and delimit their interpretive uses.” Because, of course, “metadata do more than provide a convenient label; they structure the conversation that ensues" (p. 154)

“Standards in the Making” (SITM) is thus a technical-critical approach that seeks to foreground the contingencies of standards in practice by zeroing in on the processes and conditions of their emergence, as well as the effects of their enactment. As previously stated, this chapter mobilizes this approach on two fronts:

Design of the chapter: we have sought to foreground our own multiple and “messy” process by preserving and displaying the individual investments and field-oriented perspectives that are  gradually synthesized, from one layer of the text to next, into a series of “standards” for the approach. (Learn more about how to read this text.) With that process in mind, the argument gradually moves from a network of seemingly autonomous voices (in this introductory layer, as well as in the analysis and synthesis layers) toward what might be called a unified authorial voice in the standardization layer.

Structure of the argument: The design process itself is informed by the critical commitments of SITM outlined above. From one layer to the next, we proceed to analyze metadata as a practice, our individual investigations each grapple with different issues regarding the contexts and effects of standardization in new media research and composition.

A Word on How this Layer Was Written

Our chapter begins with the entries arrayed in this initial “introduction” layer. In this first layer, each author was asked to respond to the prompt, “What is a ‘Standards in the Making’ approach, and what is its bearing on the new work of composing?”

In responding, each author draws upon different disciplinary backgrounds: critical geographic information systems, American studies, rhetoric, and the digital humanities. Within each of these different fields, even the idea of “standards” bears a different set of inflections and summons up a different set of concerns. Four authors. Four perspectives on “standards in the making.”

In keeping with the critical impulse of SITM, the goal of this layer is to work through these perspectives in order to see what new standards will emerge in practice.

Entries in the Introduction Layer: Considering the Mattering of Metadata in the GIS Classroom, Organizing Research Through SITM, The Shelf Life of Digital Scholarship, Negotiating Standards in Composition Studies