Updated: Mar 26, 2022
In the two previous essays (Part 1, Part 2), we explored themes revolving around the asymmetric ecosystem of art and forming of the Art Identification Standard to address some of its looming challenges. Information asymmetry is certainly a tough nut to crack, especially considering the ever-changing dynamics of the modern art market and its riveting business actors. In the digital age of today the data is everywhere, and so is data pollution, which when left unattended, slows the progress of companies that rely on efficient data economies and makes it harder for everyone to derive value from available information.
Creating digital representations of art objects to a global system that act as an independently verifiable, immutable source of truth opens the possibilities of non-zero-sum game business models, where companies that usually compete with each other aim to expand the size of the art market (and increase profit margins) through collaboration and mutually beneficial goals. Often at the very core of organisational prowess lies a powerful technical solution that goes beyond the constraints of today with a set of ambitious goals to change tomorrow. Most progress rises from innovation or crisis. Today, we face both those triggers. The novelty in persisting art-related information in the digital space is rooted in a new way of thinking about identifiers for unique objects (or unique classes of objects), henceforth leveraging the very latest advances in information science.
Exploring universally unique identifiers
The world is random. Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Stepping back from trying to dissect what mathematics and philosophy are telling us about the reality we thrive in (and the art we cherish), randomness (or pseudo-randomness, which is an inherent property of every Turing machine that does not rely on an external source of entropy) lies at the heart of every computing mechanism and technique that deals with processing information.
Working under an entry assumption that the global digital data repository for art objects should be as lightweight and as unobtrusive as possible to create and assign an id to the object, the first thing that comes to mind is a simple system tagging objects with one of the universally unique identifier variants that are ubiquitous across a raft of programming languages and operating systems. UUID’s are of fixed 128-bit size, up to 36 characters long (up to 32 without dashes) and generated with just enough entropy (derived from hardware interrupts, mouse movements, disk activity or other sources) to lower the chance of collision (two objects sharing the same identifier) to a negligible amount, which generally remains true even in distributed computing. The only exception to this is mobile devices that are practically considered to be low trust hardware with their (pseudo) random capabilities being insecure and prone to attacks.
The disadvantages of using UUID in data stores are noticeable in plain sight: their size (and performance overhead that goes along with it), problematic ordering, records inserted at random due to the absence of sequentiality, cumbersome debugging, and a few more. Not short on imperfections, universally unique identifiers have been successfully used for decades in the vast majority of computer systems as a smallest atomic unit to map information, tag objects, or identify digital abstractions across multiple types of data stores. However, being not context-aware, UUIDs are highly dependent on the decisions of the system designer and business stakeholders, who leverage them to satisfy a very specific and narrowly defined set of requirements. While effective at representing data, they work within walled gardens of their pre-defined environments and are unable to carry the object context and model the actions that created them in the first place in a decentralised and independently verifiable way.
Pointing at silos
If one were to try today to create and assign a unique, global, digital identifier to Guernica (a magnificent, colourless painting by Pablo Picasso that depicts the tragedies of war and the unexpected loss of innocence) we would probably end up having a seemingly random set of alphanumeric characters ready to be used inside a database system. Unless we take additional steps and assign the freshly generated alphanumerics (or hashes) to a data entity that provides further context, we are not getting much value from creating the unique identifier itself. Taking these additional steps results in creating a multi-layered software to record and maintain art data, with a lot of (both internal and external) software dependencies in place. It is an unverified and non-publicly auditable source of truth to work with. If a company decides to build software that aims to act as a provenance database for Picasso artworks it will probably end up building yet another information silo, as indistinguishable and as unverifiable as the other silos availa