Defining “digital”

You keep using that word; I do not think it means what you think it means.

(This is an excerpt from a keynote address I gave at MuseumNext 2014 called “Becoming Authentically Digital. I’ll probably post more of that talk later when I get a chance.)

To thrive in the 21st Century, it’s not enough for museums to “do” digital work. We have to think about our organizations and our work in an entirely different way. We can continue on our current trajectory–a path towards slow death paved with blockbuster exhibitions, or we can realize the potential that the web has opened up for us. We need to finally become authentically digital.

The idea of “authentically digital” comes from the Microsoft design team–it’s one of the five design principles that went into the the development of the Windows (or Metro, in common parlance). The team describes “authentically digital” this way:

“Instead of looking to the real world to inform our design metaphors, this principle embraces the limitless capacity of innovation that is found in a digital landscape. Instead of awkwardly trying to tie digital assets to their real life counterparts, we embrace the power of our medium.”

Awesome. It feels like we’re getting somewhere, now. “Limitless capacity,” “embrace the power of our medium.” Hell yeah. This feels like it describes not only where we want to be, but how we can get there. All we have to do is actually figure out how to make these concepts actionable. Which, you know, shouldn’t be too hard.

Maybe we should start by defining the word “digital.”

In the early days of CDs, each one was stamped with what I have since learned was a SPARS code. The SPARS was a three-letter code indicated the methods used to produce the CD. Each letter indicated whether that step in the CD’s production process was either analog or digital. So a CD with the coveted DDD designation (this meant that hi-fi geeks would pay more for the CD) was recorded digitally, mastered digitally, and delivered digitally (all CDs had a D for the last letter). So if you were a true digital audiophile, you would scoff at a CD with an AAD. “Feh! This was not even mastered digitally!”

What this labeling system tended to obscure was the fact that so many CDs released early on, DDD, ADD, AAD, or whatever, sounded like ass anyway. There was a fetish for capital-D digital that was not yet matched by the technology producing those discs. The word “digital” solved a lot of problems that the technology had yet to.

Does this sound familiar to you? We love the word “digital” in museums now–we’re happy to say that our latest blog is totally DDD, despite the fact that it only has four readers and took us six years to produce. In the same way that DDD used to mean “automatic awesome” for audiophiles, “digital” for museums means sweet motherlodes of engagement and young people. We’re finally getting digital. Let’s roll out that blog, and wait for carloads of teenagers to arrive on our doorsteps. That’s the way this works, right?

But just like the SPARS code, digital is a label we’ve used to paper over the fact that we still don’t really understand how this world works. Just as an experiment, I floated a question to my colleagues on Twitter the other day:

It’s amazing for something that most of us in this room live with every day, everyone really, really struggled to find a definition for it. We all instinctively felt like saying “digital means iPads” or “digital means Tumblr” would be limiting, but we struggled to come up with an alternate definition that had any meaning. The best response I received was from Adriel Lewis, Curator of Digital & Emerging Media at Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, who said: “In many fields, ‘digital’ is synonymous with ‘all things tech beyond Microsoft Office.’ Simply the use of technology automatically sweeps a project into the digital department.” This sounds about right. To be really reductivist, we’ve treated digital work as a skillset, not as a methodology that could be adopted by anyone inside  the organization.

So okay, fair enough. It’s easy enough to point out where our conception of “digital” falls short; it’s much harder to define an all-encompassing definition that actually helps to organize our thinking. Fortunately, someone out there already did that for me, so I didn’t have to. UK-based digital agency mySociety, in their review of Parliament’s digital services, wrote this in attempting to define what digital means:

[D]igital is shorthand for ‘we accept the internet values of usability, needs focus and agility’.

Does this sound like how your museum director defines digital? Probably not. But I’ll bet it makes intuitive sense to you. I feel like this definition is something we can work with–it’s something we can use to really define (or hopefully, re-define) the way we work. It also helps to differentiate a “digital” approach from a “non-digital” one without having to start talking about touch screens or mobile or whatever. Using this definition, an exhibition in your gallery space that doesn’t even have a web component could still be “digital” in the way it was conceived, designed, and executed. But it also means that your OSCI project is not really a digital one if it doesn’t focus on need, if it isn’t usable, or it wasn’t produced in an agile way.

I feel like this kind of definition clarifies our purpose in doing this kind of work, and how it fits in with museum practice and museum values. What do you think, gang?

 

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  • Caitlin McQuade

    Is it digital to take up this conversation months after your post?

    While we may have use for a word that means “‘we accept the internet values of usability, needs focus and agility,” I don’t think digital fills the bill. It certainly carries an association with those values, but when I hear it spoken by colleagues and clients, it’s somewhat less abstract. I think digital means actually “composed of digits,” as in 0s and 1s, as in hey, we’re interacting using this fabulously flexible and permeating mechanism! Even though we don’t really know how it works, I think we’ve been using digital to mean how it really works. It encompasses all the types of machines and screens and software that museum folk get so excited about playing with and offering to their audiences.