Author Archives: Adriana Sensenbrenner

The Internet of Thinking: Problematizing the Semiotic Processes Behind Google Arts and Culture

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On February 1st, 2011, Google Culture Institute launched its long-awaited digital venture, the “Google Art Project”. Originally in partnership with 17 museums from Europe and the U.S., the platform offered a new perspective on how museums are used and will be used on the Web. Google’s endeavor, now titled “Google Arts and Culture” has become the epicenter of a debate within the professional museum field where scholars see a paradigm shift towards a destabilized way of apprehending works of art. I argue that the driving force behind such a shift are the design principles that are at play. By comparing the design of Arts and Culture to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website and the online database Artstor, I will extrapolate the poor implementation of Google’s design principles that facilitate user interpretation and access to understanding art and culture. I will end by using my analysis as well as my background in Art History to offer suggestions on how to improve the visualization for Google’s platform that incorporate such semiotic layers.

The success of Google Arts and Culture was perhaps unintentional. The enterprise was developed as a side project by Google’s Group Marketing Manager Amit Sood who envisioned a platform that provided a “number of digital reproductions of works from participating museum institutions, which can then be visualized in high resolution and explored through a drag-and-drop, zoom-in-and-out interface.”[1] High resolution images could easily be found online, yet Google created pictures composed of as many as seven billion pixels. Also dubbed “gigapixel” images, these provide the user an even better experience than the “real, breathing thing” because the quality allows the user see a “microscopic view of details in brushwork and surface condition that previously were difficult or impossible to see with the naked eye.”[2] Yet among these- and more- digital feats that characterizes Google’s platform, the problem arises as to where does the platform mediate and provide interpretable information for users. Establishing any sort of meaning and dialogue between works of art recalls Malraux’s idea of the musée imaginaire– an ‘imaginary museum’ or ‘the museum without walls’.[3] A concept on creating the ideal collection of all artworks seen in our imagination where dialogue rests on the view of art and art history as essential for establishing dialogue between works.[4] The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website and Artstor are designed with that very intention in mind; providing access to material and information for users to construct their own meaning system.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Providing some background information on how both sites get and organize their metadata will determine how each institution designs their platform. Understanding data storage, creation and dissemination will become key points of comparisons to Google Arts and Culture. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, also known as “the Met”, has a very thorough website designed as a one-stop-shop for anyone who is curious about the museum’s vast collections, archives, exhibitions or visiting the Met Museums themselves. The homepage is divided into multiple sections that merge together when you scroll up or down the page. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s metadata is from its own database through their digitization efforts of their collections. According to their website, “The Metropolitan Museum of Art creates, organizes, and disseminates a broad range of digital images and data that document the rich history of the Museum, its collection, exhibitions, events, people, and activities.”[5] Such an undertaking was managed by the Thomas J. Watson Library Office of Digital Projects that “provided access to research materials from the Libraries of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, selected materials from Metropolitan Museum of Art curatorial departments, and partner libraries and archives.”[6]

Don Undeen was the information architect at the Met for 4 years before coming to Georgetown University. In an email, he explains how the Met creates, stores and updates its metadata:

“The Met stores all the data about its collection in a proprietary database system called TMS (The Museum System, from Gallery Systems). It’s a big complicated relational Database that runs on an Oracle database. The collection managers and curators from all the museum departments keep this system updated and objects are acquired, new information is gained, they are placed in various exhibitions, travel on loan, etc. So the database is more than just the information that visitors to the website see, but is actually for managing the objects in the collection as well.”[7]

The museum’s collection falls into two categories; images of works believed to be in the public domain and those to be under copyright or other restrictions. To overcome this division, The Metropolitan Museum of Art implemented a new policy in February 2017 known as “Open Access” which allows artworks in the public domain to be freely available for unrestricted use as well makes available data from the entire online collection under the Creative Commons Zero (CC0).[8] Images of artwork believed to be in the public domain are also available on ITHAKA-Artstor and Google Cultural Institute, reinforcing a shared platform of metadata that also plays into Malraux’s concept of a museum without walls.


Artstor is also committed to disseminating knowledge of scholarship and teaching through digital images and media. A nonprofit organization, Artstor is comprised of Artstor Digital Library that includes millions of high-quality images for education and research across disciplines from a wide variety of contributors around the world. They also developed JSTOR Forum, a software that allows institutional users to catalog, manage, and distribute digital media collections and make them more discoverable. In 2016, Artstor formed a strategic alliance with ITHAKA, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is for preserving and expanding access to knowledge and is home to other services for higher education such as JSTOR and Portico. Whereas the Met uses its own collection as metadata, Artstor relies on contributors to promotes and shares information. Contributors are listed as museums, artists, artists’ estates, photographers, scholars, special collections and photo archives on the website. As such, Artstor uses several different kinds of databases to get their information onto one platform. Artstor has specific guidelines on how to sort through, group, classify and organize the information they receive. According to the website, “…the Digital Library can be searched and browed by object-type classification (e.g. painting, architecture, etc.), country/ region, and earliest and latest date. The classification terms are applied from an in-house controlled list (painting, sculpture, etc.); the country terms are from the Getty Research Institute’s Thesaurus of Geographic Names (TGN); and numeric earliest and latest dates are created for each record. The Artstor Advanced Search and Browse functions depend on these consistent access points to improve access to all collections.”[9] To alleviate  problems associated with information overload, Artstor uses the following techniques:

  1. Clustering duplicates and details representing a unique work “behind” a lead image to represent the entire work and provide the highest quality
  2. Collaborative filtered groups determine which images are saved in conjunction with other specific images by users making groups
  3. A controlled vocabulary from Getty Research Institute’s Union List of Artist’s Names (ULAN) allows searching for works by any part or variant of an artist’s name to find images linked to the ULAN creator record

The Google Behind Arts and Culture

How do both of these platforms compare to Google Arts and Culture? In order to understand Google’s platform, one needs to understand how Google as an entire company thinks and creates its platforms. It is hard to image a life before Google. Indeed, Google is intertwined in almost anything if not everything we do. We retrieve information ranging from something trivial like DYI tutorials to helping students (like me) write papers like this one. Google was founded in the late 1990s along with the revolution to commercialize the Web. The rise of this mega-tech company started a new way of searching and categorizing ideas and issues through algorithms. In their book Google and the Culture of Search, Hillis et. al aptly state how “Google operates as a nexus of power and knowledge newly constituted through extremely rapid changes in networked media technologies…”.[10] Google is an online platform that is also a kind of interface that (should) facilitate meaning. An interface is a metaphor that describes discovering “important cognitive and technical patterns that apply to all kinds of symbolic artefacts: books, photographs, artworks, music, architecture (3D built space), and, more recently, the symbolic substrate of pixel-based screens that can represent any 2D digital object. “Interface” is also part of web of related conceptual metaphors: medium/mediation, affordance, window, node, link, relay.”[11] Google’s search model (PageRank) which is one component of its interface relies on relevancy, instantaneity and generic individualization which ultimately skews how they operate their database and more broadly speaking, their platforms. By creating algorithms that will preemptively select what you would search, Google is narrowing down the scope of your search results based on what you want to see. Such a concept ties into Manovich’s ‘paradox’ of personalized technologies, where in “…following an interactive path, one does not construct unique self but instead adopts already pre-established identities.”[12] Ultimately Google is telling a viewer information whereas a normal interface is giving a viewer access to materials and information so they create their own meaning system. Studying the search technology behind Google has broader implications on how users, searchers and viewers navigate, classify and evaluate Web content on all of Google’s platforms, including Arts and Culture.

In order to extrapolate Google’s design principles, one needs to look at the motive behind Arts and Culture as well as how it receives its data. First and foremost, Google Arts and Culture is a digitized open archive of sorts (the word ‘open’ complicates the matter and will be further extrapolated further down). The original 17 institutions that were part of the project have now expanded to over a thousand collections, museums and other cultural institutions since its initial launch 7 years ago. Don rightly proposes the following definition of the Google Arts and Culture project; “The Google Art project is more of a Content Management system for web-facing educational art websites. Its goal is to amass collections from as many sources as possible and present it nicely, at the expense of having complete records, complete collections, or making it available for re-use.”[13] Google therefore gets its data from institutions that would like to participate and ask for a kind of ‘membership’ for their artwork to be displayed on Google’s platform. Arts and Culture imports museum collection to its platform and has the liberty to interpret, place and treat these objects as it sees fit. Participating institutions provide their collection on this free platform and Google provides the technical services of archiving their data. Not only does it gain visibility for the institutions but also adds to Google’s branding. It’s a win-win for both parties involved.

The services provided on the Arts and Culture platform are also using Google’s current technologies, just bundled and combined in a different way. Combinatorial or cumulative designs are found on an interactive screen interface, where in using this interface “we become conductors of a complex, unobservable orchestra of actions for transforming signs and symbols through ongoing computation and combinations with other symbolic structures, and combinations with many other conductors.”[14] Google has bundled together technologies that have already existed before creating Arts and Culture. For instance, “Street View”, “Nearby” and all maps are from Google Maps, basic information on hours of the museums from Google Search and data on images fetched partly from Google Images. At an initial glances, the design of the platform seems transparent and natural but it’s not, given that Google’s software embedded in Arts and Culture just needs to fetch the basic scripted metadata from other platforms embedded into this platform. Arts and Culture therefore becomes an example of a ‘meta-medium’, a phrase coined by Alan kay to describe a computer with “no longer a single medium but a medium for other media processed by user-activated software in the same substrate used for display.”[15] The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website and Artstor are also meta-mediums but for a different purpose. The motivation behind the Met collections database and Artstor rests on its priority to be a resource for scholars and for the public, being as open as possible and erring on the side of more sharing. The Met’s Open Access API further reinstates its commitment to Arts and Culture, however, doesn’t have a terms of service statement regarding re-use, and they’ve even made it hard to download the images on the site. Try right-clicking to save image; it doesn’t work anywhere that I can see. In a sense it’s a “Dead End.”

A Problem of Design

 Such back-end technologies impact every aspect of how Google designs and visualizes its metadata on Arts and Culture The Design of Arts and Culture is rather interesting if you look at other Google platforms in comparison. All of Google’s products and services follow a strict design guide called Visual Assets Guidelines. According to Google’s Art Director Christ Bettig, the guide “defines our visual design (across platforms)  and provides the assets / information needed in order to create any visuals for Google products or marketing collateral.”[16] Among the many guidelines in this comprehensive report, a few items stood out to me. Google’s core design philosophy has always been to create products that are built on a large scale and that are “mobile-first”; two concepts that are not embedded into Arts and Culture. Not only does Google violate their own design principles, the company fails to incorporate interactive design features that are intended to provide user information to facilitate interpretation and usable representation.

One of the key components of Arts and Culture is the continuous scroll feature that has one New York Times critic Roberta Smith saying “the images start sliding past like butter.” Each image is compressed into a flat tile that takes its place next to another flat tile, maybe of the same artist or a different artist? I don’t know. A featured theme of “Vermeer” is displayed on Arts and Culture’s home page. Does that have anything to do with the featured stories down below? I don’t know either- and that’s the problem. Arts and Culture is a database, a platform and most importantly, an interface. As stated earlier, an interface is intended to facilitate meaning to the viewer so they in turn can establish connections and create a nodes of meanings within their own information network. The visualizations of Arts and Culture inhibit such meaning-making. The flat tiles of images gives the viewer some information and no information at the same time. If you click the theme you are overburdened by information; Who was Johannes Vermeer?, “The complete works in augmented reality”, “The Mona Lisa of the North”, “Every painting in one place”, “Vermeer on screen,” “create your own masterpiece,” “Vermeer in pop culture,” “Justin Richburg x Vermeer,” “The Devil is in the Details”- the list goes on and on until you get to “explore more” which honestly is pointless given that Google has thrown so much information in your face already. By breaking up the information into seemingly “informational” nodes, Google is making it “difficult to identify the explicit transfer of knowledge because there is very limited interpretative text explaining the conceptual threads that tie items together.”[17] Barranha and Martins both argue that for virtual museums or collections such as the Arts and Culture, there is a need to “…opt (or should opt) for architecture which is flexible, transparent, distributed and open to collaboration and multiple realizations.”[18] The generalized “themes” created by Google also puts into discussion Malraux’s museé imaginaire, in which western culture has embedded a notion of stylistic continuities and generalities that result in a thematized style that ultimately leaves little to learn about.

The same search of Vermeer on the Met Collection and Artstor reveal a complete different perspective- and story behind both website’s design principles. The Met’s search results in 38 Vermeer paintings, that can be filtered by “object type/material”, “geographic location”, “date/era” and “department” as well as can be sorted by “Relevance”, “Title”, “Date”, “Artist” and “Accession Number.” The same search on Artstor has many more results and similar classifications with additional categories; “Contributor” and “Collection Type”. Such classifications draw a parallel to the three sign functions, icon, index and symbol, used in the semiotic process. As Irvine states, “they function as exemplary types (prototypes, ideal model forms) that the American viewer is given access to as part of a democratic cultural history, and thus open onto the whole network of symbolic values for art history.”[19] A viewer using the Met and Artstor can therefore understand the messages and meanings represented in the details of the artworks because of those categories of descriptions. Such connections are not made apparent on Google’s interface. It is unclear what concepts and relationships are being used or what organizing principles are being deployed when grouping the flat tiles into chunks on-screen or using the infinite scroll feature. When you click on Every Painting in one place, you see Vermeer’s paintings have been thematized one again according to “flirtation”, “Storytelling”, “Concentration”, “Correspondence”, etc. These themes created are further reaffirming Manovich’s concept of creating “pre-established identities.” The viewer is being told Google’s perspective on how to understand Vermeer whereas being shown the different types of interprenants that are available to their disposal. Google is actively changing how one interprets artists, paintings and art history in general when creating these preemptive themes and categories. Google becomes a ‘a zoo of oddities’ and an ‘endless seeing of the Internet’ where Arts and Culture represents ‘a kind of cultural illness’ that has infatuated the general public. [20]


















Another Perspective

There are other ways of designing and using Google’s technologies that can incorporate the missing semiotic layers apparent on the Met and Artstor’s website. The Met has gracefully and easily employed the basic meaning-making ‘system’ within their design of the website. While Google has shuffled its metadata in themes and groups, the Met re-organizes and interprets its various layers of data onto a comprehensive and interactive Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The timeline “pairs essays and works of art with chronologies telling the story of art and global culture through the Museum’s collection.”[21] While Arts and Culture is like Artstor in the sense that it is a database, it is also a quasi-archive. Alexandra Lussier-Craig speaks to how Arts and Culture (titled the Arts Project back in 2015) behaves as an archive:

“It behaves similarly to archives, in the plural, in the way that it treats the individual collections. The items in the Art Project are primarily arranged according to the institution that contributed the collection […] items are treated as though they originate in museum collections.”

Lussier-Craig adds that even though the Arts Project groups items according to the museum or institution that contributed them, “each of these collections the itemsʼ arrangement is far less structured . The arrangement of items within each collection is algorithmically generated[…]”[22] To combine the qualities of the Met’s archives and Artstor’s database with Google’s technologies, I propose that Arts and Culture creates a sophisticated timeline of sorts. Arts and Culture has already the metadata available to create this timeline. The timeline would be illustrated to incorporate the time period and geographic region together on one screen to create an indexical relationship among artworks. The contributing institutions would be another layer added onto the timeline, to locate where the artworks are in physical space. I would get rid of the Street View as it adds no information other than how you would see the artwork. Audio and videos that are already on the platform can become incorporated under each artwork on the timeline. Creating this chronological design and visualization will not only created usable information but also incorporate Google’s “large scale” design principle. Another feature that might be interesting to add is to take a picture of an artwork before you and the app will situate that within the timeline. This can create a real-time index to help the viewer understand the artwork before them.


Google Arts and Culture is founded on the principle to “discover artworks, collections and stories from all around the world in a new way.” Yet  Google’s design, visualizations and organization of its metadata creates a “content management platform” for web-facing institutions. From the outset, the search engine was designed to avoid the subjectivity, maintenance expense, slow speed of indexing and limited scalability common to human-maintained directory sites.[23] Google’s focus on instantaneity and scalability neglects basic design principles that facilitate a user’s ability to understand and contextualize art and culture. The platform becomes a winding road of information with no directionality, that is rather funny for a search engine who prides itself on mastering the art of design. The Arts and Culture platform becomes an interesting case study of the power of design and the seemingly trivial details on our ability to form connections and create meaning. I wish to see the changes, if any, that Google will create to this platform that had such immense potential.


[1] Agostino, C. “Distant Presence and Bodily Interfaces: ‘Digital-Beings’ and Google Art Project.” Museological Review, no. No.19 (2015): p. 65.

[2] Beil, Kim. “Seeing Syntax: Google Art Project and the Twenty-First-Century Period Eye.” Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism. 40.4 (January/February 2013): 22-27.

[3] Irvine, Martin. “Malraux and the Museé Imaginaire: (Meta)Mediation, Representation and Mediating Institutions.” Google Docs. Accessed December 11, 2018.


[4]  Kristoffermilling. “Malraux and the Musee Imaginaire: The ‘Museum without Walls.’” Culture in Virtual Spaces (blog), June 17, 2014.

[5] “Image and Data Resources.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum. Accessed December 9, 2018.

[6] “TJWL Office of Digital Projects.”

[7] Undeen, Don. Dec. 10, 2018. Gmail Interview.


[9] “Metadata Policy & Standards | Artstor.” Accessed December 9, 2018.

[10] Hillis, Ken, Michael Petit, and Kylie Jarrett. Google and the Culture of Search. 1st ed. New York, NY, 10001: Routledge, 2012.

[11] Manovich, Lev. “The Language of New Media.” MIT Press, 2001, p. 226.

[12] Manovich, p. 129.

[13] Undeen, Don. Dec 10, 2018. Email Interview.

[14] Irvine, Martin. “Introduction to Affordances, Constraints, and Interfaces.” Google Docs. Accessed December 9, 2018. Page 7.

[15] Irvine, p. 7.

[16] “Google Visual Asset Guidelines.” CB. Accessed December 12, 2018.

[17] Lussier-Craig, Alexandra. “Googling Art: Museum Collections in the Google Art Project,” n.d., 7.

[18] Barranha, Helena, and Susana Martins. “Beyond the Virtual: Intangible Museographies and Collaborative Museum Experience.”, January 2015.

[19] Irvine, Martin. Art and Media Interfaced: From Studying Interfaces to Making Interfaces. Accessed December 11, 2018. file:///Users/adrianasensenbrenner/Downloads/Irvine-Making-Interfaces-Project%20(1).pdf

[20] “Is Google Bringing Us Too Close to Art?” The Daily Dot, March 21, 2013.

[21] “Home | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Accessed December 13, 2018.

[22] Lussier-Craig, p. 8.

[23] Hillis, p. 36.



“About the Google Cultural Institute.” Accessed December 12, 2018.

Agostino, C. “Distant Presence and Bodily Interfaces: ‘Digital-Beings’ and Google Art Project.” Museological Review, no. No.19 (2015): 63–69.

Beil, Kim. “Seeing Syntax: Google Art Project and the Twenty-First-Century Period Eye.” Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism. 40.4 (January/February 2013): 22-27.

Barranha, Helena, and Susana Martins. “Beyond the Virtual: Intangible Museographies and Collaborative Museum Experience.”, January 2015.

“Google Visual Asset Guidelines.” CB. Accessed December 12, 2018.

Hillis, Ken, Michael Petit, and Kylie Jarrett. Google and the Culture of Search. 1st ed. New York, NY, 10001: Routledge, 2012.

“Home | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.” The Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. Accessed December 13, 2018.

“Image and Data Resources.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, i.e. The Met Museum. Accessed December 9, 2018.

Irvine, Martin. “Introduction to Affordances, Constraints, and Interfaces.” Google Docs. Accessed December 9, 2018.

Irvine, Martin. “Malraux and the Museé Imaginaire: (Meta)Mediation, Representation and Mediating Institutions.” Google Docs. Accessed December 11, 2018. file:///Users/adrianasensenbrenner/Downloads/Malraux-Imagined-Museum-Interface%20(1).pdf

Irvine, Martin. Art and Media Interfaced: From Studying Interfaces to Making Interfaces. Accessed December 11, 2018. file:///Users/adrianasensenbrenner/Downloads/Irvine-Making-Interfaces-Project%20(1).pdf

“Is Google Bringing Us Too Close to Art?” The Daily Dot, March 21, 2013.

Kristoffermilling. “Malraux and the Musee Imaginaire: The ‘Museum without Walls.’” Culture in Virtual Spaces (blog), June 17, 2014.

Lussier-Craig, Alexandra. “Googling Art: Museum Collections in the Google Art Project,” n.d., 114.

Manovich, Lev. “The Language of New Media.” MIT Press, 2001, 68.

“Metadata Policy & Standards | Artstor.” Accessed December 9, 2018.

Proctor, Nancy. “The Google Art Project: A New Generation of Museums on the Web?” Curator: The Museum Journal 54, no. 2 (April 1, 2011): 215–21.

“TJWL Office of Digital Projects.” Accessed December 9, 2018.

Undeen, Don. Dec. 10, 2018. Gmail Interview.

preliminary references for final paper

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Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002. 

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to Cognitive Artefacts and Semiotic Technologies” (seminar unit intro)

Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Selections from the Introduction and chapters 1-2

Donald A. Norman, “Affordance, Conventions, and Design.” Interactions 6, no. 3 (May 1999): 38-43.

Agostino, C. “Distant Presence and Bodily Interfaces: ‘Digital-Beings’ and Google Art Project.” Museological Review, no. No.19 (2015): 63–69.
Spina, Carli. “Discover Art with Google’s New App.” School Library Journal, September 2016. Biography In Context. 
Theimer, Kate. “Archives in Context and as Context.” Journal of Digital Humanities, June 26, 2012.
“Museum Educators and Technology: Expanding Our Reach and Practice: Journal of Museum Education: Vol 36, No 3.” Accessed November 28, 2018.
Proctor, Nancy. “The Google Art Project: A New Generation of Museums on the Web?” Curator: The Museum Journal 54, no. 2 (April 1, 2011): 215–21.

outline for final paper

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Google Art and Culture becomes a case study of website design and the impact that has on user’s ability to understand and contextualize art work. By comparing Google’s platform to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website and ArtStor’s database, I will extrapolate key affordances and constraints that highlight how Art and Culture lacks core design principles that facilitate user interpretation and usable representation. I will end by using my analysis as well as my knowledge of Art History to offer offer suggestions on how to improve the design for Google’s platform that incorporate such semiotic layers.

Section 1: How Each of the websites/ databases were founded// created

Google: When it first launched trying to harvest Wikipedia information and put a wiki page snapshot in some of the background

The Met: digitize the museum

ArtStor: a strategic alliance with ITHAKA, a not-for-profit organization helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways

Section 2: how it works visually/ what are their core design principles


  • design philosophy for mobile is about designing for companies and institutions for transactions (screen into a transaction)
  • branding for google as well (FREE platform!!)
  • makes it FLAT- no way of sorting information according to hierarchy of concepts, history, etc.)
  • you should be given some sense of the data- but it continues to fill (infinite scroll feature)
    • tiles of information but no information at the same time)

betraying own design principle that usually built on a large scale



Section 3: How it works technically

Met’s timeline for art history

  • curators put together this timeline (constraint: labor intensive)


  • bundled together technologies they already have so Basic scripted metadata
  • open platform and curated by institutions who want to join (provide technical services for archiving and database) but Google doesn’t provide no knowledge or data

ArtStor- Scholarly Academic Research Journals (JSTOR)

  • Revenue is on subscriptions (gtown subscribes, Hopkins, etc.)
  • copyright content so need to be a subscriber

Section 4: How the information is organized


  • thematized through colors, mediums, artists, art movements
  • through emotions ???


  • different level of information (usable info- date, title, description, etc.)
  • personalize it à create your own collection
  • browse by: collection, classification, geography, teaching resources


  • collection highlights , open access artworks
  • object type/ material, geographic location, date/era , department

Section 5: Suggestions to improve the Design of Google’s Art and Culture

  • namely: how to incorporate the semiotic layers into the database

The Internet of Thinking

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After reading this week’s assigned articles, I realized that I truly never did understand the concept of the internet and the difference between that and the web. Kind of surprising given that I had to learn how the internet works and the various design layers for 506. The internet, according to Khan, originated with the word “inter-networking”. Every computer and device are connected to the network interface to communication with the local network’s backbone- most likely through Wi-Fi radio signals. They are all communicating data in the form of a message from one device to another (White, p. 256).

The internet is an invisible giant at veils anything digital that carries information for the purposes of connecting everything together to transmit information, messages, content- basically anything. At first I thought of the internet as our constitution given that the constitution, even though physical, is the very foundation of the rules and laws that bind all U.S. citizens. It is an interface in a certain way that is also, like the internet, malleable. It is never truly finished since politicians can amend/ ratify articles within the constitution. Much in the same manner, the internet “follows extensible design principles that are open to future technical and social developments. The internet will never be finished: the design and architecture is generative for continually enabling new combinations and technical dev elopements for further features, services and access to ubiquitous data and information” (Irvine, p. 10). After further consideration, the internet can also be likened to water or air. Both are necessary foundations for life itself, in which various productions of services and features are possible.

To answer the question posed by Professor Irvine, “what does it mean to be on the internet?”, I think we are always on the internet given that our whole life revolves around digital devices. We watch TV- on the internet; on iMessage, on the internet; listening to Spotify- on the internet. It’s almost like we are all under a bubble where without it, we would be unable to do daily activities. It enables a type of thinking that allows us to look at information through 4D vision, we can see anything and have access to everything.


Martin Irvine, The Internet: Design Principles and Extensible Futures

Ron White, How the Internet Works.” Excerpt from How Computers Work. 10th ed. Que Publishing, 2015.

Digitization and Medamedium

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“Digital cameras record our images, digital networks record our purchases, and global positioning technology in our cars or cell phones pinpoints our personal location” – Murray

Having already taken CCTP 506, I am familiar with the whole analog vs digital divide. We learned about the nature of continuous-discrete dichotomy that is part of a larger socio-technical system. As Dr. Irvine explains, we “use terms of digital media as objects, rather than artifacts, and we forget that media is a continuum system that can be designed to be used in different forms and formats, which now days we say digital.”

Integral the process of digitalization is to the development of modern technological achievements. In tandem with such processes is the concept of meta medium, the ability to remediate and build on existing media. Digital camera integrates taking a picture and developing it in one artifact. Before these two actions were separated, where you took a picture using a camera and then developed it in a dark room through a chemical process.

About 6 years ago, I got a Nikon Camera DSLR for Christmas and have been using it ever since. I want to use this week’s discussion as an opportunity to de-blackbox my camera so I can finally understand how it works. Looking at the concepts and affordances presented in Murray’s Inventing the Medium: Principles Of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice will give me a better sense of how to break down this process into parts.

Murray introduces the four representational properties of digital environments, the procedural, participatory, spatial and encyclopedic affordances that “provide a core palette for designers across applications within the common digital medium” (p. 9).

Design Affordances 

The handle extension o the right side of the camera gives people a visual clue of how to hold it so the camera sits fits nicely in my hand. Other affordances to keep in mind is the interface-type screen facing the user that allows them to see the scenes they captures. There are several turntables and buttons to press on the side of the screen that allows easy access to scroll through everything. The lens can automatically turn to focus on a subject or you can do it manually. This incorporates what Murray describes as “participatory design”, engaging the potential users of a new system in every step of the design process as collaborating members of the design team.


The screen facing the user is an example of the Graphical User Interface that increases the interaction between human and camera. Settings on the screen include language, date/time and specific effects for different subject-matters.

Inner Design

The basic principle of and design of a camera looks something like this:


The object will release different light rays and the camera’s function is to capture the light ray. Light that has been focused through the lens of a camera must pass through a round diaphragm on its way to being registered as an image on the camera’s sensor.

Something else that we should think of when talking about metamediums is the concept of biomimicry– the design and production of materials, structures and systems that are modeled on biological entities and processes. Ron White describes how the camera’s aperture serves the same function as the human eye’s pupil. The diaphragm is the camera’s version of the eye’s iris. Does the concept of biomimicry add an extra layer or “medium” to a meta-medium?

Modular Design 

I thought this picture was really cool because it gives us an x-ray vision of the modular design inside the camera. You can see all the parts are part are part of a much larger system- much like a human system that, again, ties into the concept of biomimicry.



Martin Irvine, Introduction to Symbolic-Cognitive Interfaces: History of Design Principles (essay).

Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Excerpts from Introduction and Chapter 2.

Ron White and Timothy Downs. How Digital Photography Works. 2nd ed. Indianapolis, IN: Que Publishing, 2007.

Piano and Coding: Creating a Universal Language

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This was not the first time I was introduced to CodeAcademy- one of the assignments for 506 was to complete a JavaScript training module which bares similarities to the Python training module we had to complete in this class. As a first-time (or I guess second-time) coder, I greatly enjoyed this process of turning an input into an output. As I was finishing the exercise, I couldn’t help but notice so many similarities to how I learned how to play the piano.

Evans talks a lot about how language is very much like computing “since we use the tools of language to describe information processes” (Evans, p.16). Any kind of language has three characteristics that are also deeply fundamental in computing and coding- recursive definitions, universality and abstraction. All three of these are also seen in the language of music. Music is a universal language that can communicate meaning and ideas through a system of rules and symbolic representation- just like coding. Coding has a set of rules that, as we saw in CodeAcademy, allows you to communicate with your computer. As a concert pianist, I am able to communicate with my audience by playing a pattern of notes structured in a certain way. The meaning of the music is “coded” if you will, within the patterns- or algorithms- of a sheet of music. Below is a snapshot of my code from CodeAcademy and the second page from Rachmaninoff’s Prelude that I played to graduate from my music conservatory in D.C.

CodeAcademy, first tutorial



Second page from Rachmaninoff Prelude, Op. 32 No. 12 in G Sharp Minor

The music scale is universal to any musical instrument- my brothers who both played string instruments would do various scales- C major, d minor, F major- and so on, just like me. You can play C on any instrument and it would be the same note with the same intonation but the way you play it might change from instrument to instrument. Even with no training on the guitar or violin, it would be easier for me to pick up and start playing a tune than someone who has no musical experience. The key is the universal musical alphabet or language that lets you convert and interpret musical symbols from one instrument to another.

As Irvine states, “we use symbols (software) not only to represent meanings but to perform actions on other symbols” (Irvine). If I apply this to playing F sharp, G and A on the piano, I cannot “tell” my piano to perform that sequence therefore in this case I am “acting” like the console, or as the “print” function in Python. I was curious to find if there is computer-generated music out there and there is- tons of it.  FlowMachine is just a few of the websites out there that has songs created by A.I. and inspired by musicians such as Cole Porter, and the Beatles. Google A.I. ‘s Magenta also can create pretty good beats:

It would be very interesting to map out Rachmaninoff’s Prelude that I played using Magenta’s paradigms. I have included the second page of the 8-page piece and a recording of my performance below (only the first few seconds):  Irvine Blog


David Evans, Introduction to Computing: Explorations in Language, Logic, and Machines. Oct. 2011 edition. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; Creative Commons Open Access:

Irvine, Martin Introduction to Computation and Computational Thinking

The Transmission Model of Communication: Creating an Interface for Dialogic Communication

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At the heart of the transmission model is what Shannon call a “conceptual metaphor” that utilizes technology such as communication systems, to explain various aspects of the communication process. There are six basic elements to Shannon’s original diagram as shown below; an information source, a transmitter that encodes the message into signals, a channel that signal are adapted for transmission, a receiver, a destination and a factor-noise that might interfere with the travel of the message. The noise, for example, could come from another distractor. I would like to understand how Shannon’s model of transmission system could illuminate how we humans communicate.

There is a lot of discussion around how the transmission model does not take into consideration the meaning of the message- but how about lets turn towards where the meaning actually lies. How about, for example, a text message. There is a virtual communication aspect added to text messages given that there is no face-to-face communication or phone communication. Even if there is this temporal dimension added, communication is now instant, just like it is face to face.

In this case, something is transmitted through the internet network. By applying Shannon’s model, we can see that there is communication not only between the person who is texting me and and myself but between my messages and their messages. When I sent a text message, that message is seen in the other person’s “iMessage” application and receives and signal. There is a difference between their message box before I sent the text and now after- signaling that an added difference is transmitted and replicated through interfaces.

The meaning is encoded in the very sequences of letters themselves- various takes on the alphabet determines the meaning of the message that plays into Shannon’s point of “reproducing at one point either exactly or approximately a message selected at another point” that is ultimately accomplished. The transmission model ultimately encapsulates a transmission process that creates an interface that enables a dialogic communication process to ensue.


Martin Irvine, Introduction to the Technical Theory of Information 

Ronald E. Day, “The ‘Conduit Metaphor’ and the Nature and Politics of Information Studies.” Journal of the American Society for Information Science 51, no. 9 (2000): 805-811.


A Motherboard for Museums: Mediation and Meta-information on Google Arts & Culture

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Banruo used the notion of saying (or texting) our names as a mediator to communicate more information- kind of like a “hidden code” if you will. I will propose that mediation not only occurs in communication but also through one’s physical appearance/ characteristics. How one dresses and their mannerisms can give a substantial amount of information about that person. Even though this is considered “judging someone by their looks”, it has been inculcated into society as a common idea.

Of course, mediation also happens digitally- as is the case with Google Arts and Culture. In “What is Mediology”, author Debray extrapolates that mediology calls for “showing that the origin is what arises at the end; that the external medium/environment [milieu] is internal with the message, and that the periphery is in the center of the core; that transport [of a message] transforms…” (p.32). One can apply the same methodology or mediology, to the interface of Google Arts and Culture. For the purposes of this blog post, I will focus on one of the characteristics of this platform- the paintings themselves. I will specifically be looking at Il Molo verso la riva degli Schiavoni con la colonna di San Marco in the “Milan is For Art Lovers’ online collection, on display at Castello Sforzesco di Milano. My analysis will be a bottom-up approach, with the goal of extrapolating different layers of mediation that are hidden beneath the pixelated surface.

The first layer is the painting itself.  A brief description of the painting is on Castello Sforzesco’s website and some of the language is also seen on Google Arts and Culture’s website;

The 1995 purchase of the large canvas and the pendant Il Molo verso la riva degli Schiavoni con la colonna di San Marco has given a qualitative leap to the testimonies of the Venetian school preserved by the Pinacoteca. The two views offer an unsurpassed narrative synthesis, and set in harmonic balance the virtuosistic reproduction of the famous monuments of the lagoon city and the affable representation of a busy humanity in everyday life. In order to arrive at this truthfulness, the artist used only partially the mechanical instrument of the optical chamber, succeeding in constructing the views mentally. The elegant carved and gilded wooden frames accompany the paintings from the time of the commission, promoted by 1742. The perfect state of preservation and the absolute autograph frame the two views of the masterpieces preserved in the Castello Sforzesco.

The second layer is the painting within Castello Sforzesco di Milano:

The painting is one interface and one can make an argument that the room itself that holds the painting could be another layer of mediation.


The third layer is the digital representation of the painting on Google Arts and Culture: 

The platform creates a visual museum for you to explore all aspects of the painting on your screen. One of the limitations of Google Arts and Culture is its lack in rendering artwork using 3D technology so the viewer can get a sense of the space the painting takes up (mainly how big or small the painting really is). Yet what is very intriguing (and indeed helpful for any art aficionado) is the platform’s capability to zoom into the details of any painting. As someone who took at least 15 art history courses, I wish I had this platform while studying for exams. Such a capability reduces the space between viewer and digitized object- allowing the interface to almost go into one’s personal space. Through such capabilities, Google’s “digital museum” is taking advantage of pre-existing interfaces through layers of mediation and abstraction.

The fourth layer is the digital interface of Google Arts and Culture- housing a meta-information of all the artworks available online.

By combining the forces of all of the museum websites in the world, Google has inherently created an effective dialog among museums and their artworks. Such an access allows viewers to create meaning not within the vacuum of one museum website but within a motherboard of museums, creating what Malraux calls a “museum without walls”. Housing each piece of art in the same digital (and maybe physical) space, Google is breaking down the walls of art history textbooks and individual websites. Through such layers of mediation, Google Art and Culture’s digital touch screen has become a modular design, housing symbols of artists and creative activity- ultimately creating an interconnected web of “meta-information” that results in a “museum without walls” for distribution across the ethernet.



Irvine, Martin. 2016. “André Malraux, La Musée Imaginaire (The Museum Idea) and Interfaces to Art.”

Insta-Strength: Modularity and Usability of Instagram

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Arguably one of the most influential and oldest of the apps is Instagram. Started back in October 2010, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger created the platform for friends can post and share photos on an online community. Fast forward almost a decade later and Instagram has influenced almost every aspect of society. It has made people famous, infamous; it is one of the worst apps for our mental health yet the best for promotion and branding. By de-blackboxing Instagram, we can gain insight into the modular design principles and systems thinking behind the application.

If you decompose Instagram it interacts with multiple other applications or “modules” (Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, your contacts, and Camera Roll). Each of these “subsystems have specific set of functions that makes a system what it is by combination” (Irvine). Lidwell talks about “chunking” and “flexibility-usability tradeoff” as universal design principles and I believe the Instagram creators incorporated those ideas in the foundational architecture of the application. The app combines a large data system essentially for said user of the application- all of their contacts from their phone or Facebook, their external social media information and most importantly their photos. Together, this information is re-grouped and organized in a user-friendly format solely focusing on pictures (instead of Facebook which is rather generalized). As Lidwell explains, “[a]s an audience comes to understand the range of possible needs that can be satisfied, their needs become better defined and, consequently, the designs need to become more specialized. This shift from flexibility toward specialization over time is a general pattern observed in the evolution of all systems, and should be considered in the life cycle of products” (Lidwell, p. 86).

The benefits and efficiencies of modular design can be seen in this case study where the components within Instagram are spread yet interoperate according to design specifications (Irvine). Take for instance something that cannot be seen by the human eye- the algorithm behind your personal Instagram feed. Instagram revealed that there are three main factors that determine what you see in your Instagram feed: Interest (how much you will care about the post), Timeliness (how recent the posts are) and Relationship (whether you regularly interact with the account). On the other hand, there are three other factors that have a minimal effect on your ranking; Frequency (how often you open Instagram), Following (content from all accounts you follow) and Usage (how long a user spends on Instagram) {}.

instagram algorithmInstagram Algorithm - Feed Before and After

There are also “silent rules of Instagram” or according to Anna McNaught “The Unwritten Rules of Instagram: Do’s and Don’ts.” I knew a few on these lists like “be mindful of posting times” and there a lot of studies on when is the “best” time to post (mornings vs. evenings???). It’s crazy how much we get wrapped up in this idea- there are even platforms for you to optimize on your Instagram following (like Later). Here are a few Do’s and Dont’s for Instagram:


Martin Irvine, Introduction to Modularity and Abstraction Layers (Intro essay).

Lidwell, William, Kritina Holden, and Jill ButlerUniversal Principles of Design. Revised. Beverly, MA: Rockport Publishers, 2010.

How the Instagram Algorithm Works in 2018: Everything You Need to Know

Speculating on Snapchat Spectacles

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“…when we lack understanding, we are apt to err.” – Donald A. Norman

Given that this course is “Leading by Design”, I would think of any technology or “blackbox” using the design principles as an “architecture” or socio-technical system. Within the architectural system are series of nodes and networks, “designed to do certain kinds of functions and take in and pass on what they do to other modules in the system” (Irvine, p. 2). Smart technologies such as our phones, computers, even glasses now (Snapchat Spectacles) all have a universal design that allows us humans to enhance or amplify our ability to act or perform. For example, a computer enhance how we research, write and think. I think looking at a newer artifact would be helpful in this explanation. The Snapchat “Spectacle” is essentially a GoPro in sunglasses. In 10 seconds, they capture the world as you see it in front of you. The sunglasses therefore creates a system of nodes that maps the function of the sunglasses and ability of the product to enhance our experience of the seemingly mundane world.

The spectacles is a good example of combinatorial design principles, combining the functions of the GoPro with the design of sunglasses. Brain Arthur looks to anthropologists to understand the human tools and technologies within a cultural continuum that inevitably creates a “ratchet effect”. Ultimately “ratchet” describes “a memory function in technology development that enables a society to use the “mental models” of already developed technologies as the starting point of new developments” (Irvine, p. 4).

I would love to further explore or “de-blackbox” the Snapchat Spectacles as a design principle at play in our current society. 

Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2002. Excerpts from Preface and Chap. 1.

Martin Irvine, Introduction to Design Thinking: Systems and Architectures (Intro essay)