Leave tech in the conversation

Just a quick post, here, because I couldn’t quite get this out in 140 characters. I want to quickly address this idea, which was re-aired during the “digital strategy” session at the recent Museums and the Web conference but which has been floating around the museum technology space for a long time, of “taking technology out of the conversation.” It’s something that I hear a lot at conferences (with variations like, “learn to speak curator” or “think like an educator/scholar/conservator/etc.”). It’s a concept that sounds great in the abstract (“technology people shouldn’t focus on the technology–they should focus on the content!”), but which over the long term creates serious institutional liabilities.

Don’t get me wrong, here–I am all for communication and understanding. I think it’s important for me as a (vaguely) technology-leaning person to understand not only the content but also the context of the people and the subject matter I am working with. Technology in museums is, at its best, an interpretive medium. It’s also important, when we as a museum are engaging with new technologies, for me to explain them. However, that explanation and that understanding must be coupled with learning. I’m unwilling to accept that anyone in a museum is allowed to continue to be ignorant of that technology over the long term. Matt Popke, as usual, put this best in a recent comment to Suse Cairn’s post about organizational digital literacy:

 This is no longer about new technology. It’s about common technology and the world it plays a vital role in. Blogging is old hat. Social media has been around for almost a decade. The web was invented twenty years ago. The commercial internet was created in the 80s (split from a network that was initially created in the 60s). Sure, there will always be something that’s even newer that really does warrant an explanation, but that’s a given, and I’m fine with explaining twitter to people for a while because it’s still relatively new. When do I get to honestly say it’s no longer my job to explain to someone how to use email properly?

I agree completely with Matt here. Removing tech from the conversation doesn’t illuminate, it paralyzes. I’m willing to educate and to explain, to a point. But past that point, I’m not willing to explain anymore–coddling those who refuse to learn from (or even to accept) the world around them puts museums at risk. The definition of “museum” can’t be, “a place to pretend that the world will always be as it was.”

Technology (or, as I’ve said before, the set of practices and materials we currently define as “technology”) is the lingua franca of the world in which we now live. Museums resist acknowledging this at their peril. Any moment in which a curator/educator/director/CFO/whomever is allowed to continue to be ignorant of how a given pervasive technology works is just pushing your institution’s adaptation further down that timeline. Any method of working in which ignorance is allowed to persist is one that is, frankly, suicidal for institutions that are trying to figure out what their place is in this new world.

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13 thoughts on “Leave tech in the conversation

  1. You’re treating it as a zero-sum game — you either talk about tech or not as absolutes — rather than seeing it as a way to find common ground. 

    Because tech is new, it becomes easy to confuse the message for the medium. I don’t want someone coming to me telling me that they want to design an iPad app for the gallery. I want them to tell me that we want to find a way for visitors to explore detailed brush strokes. 

    If I come you, wanting to draw upon your expertise as a musician, should I tell you to make me a recording that uses three violins, an alto sax, and a laptop? Or would you prefer that I *trust* you as a musician and tell you that I’m doing a live show in a public space and I need help in creating something that feels upbeat to accompany an emo dance number and let you make a recommendation about the best execution.

    I’m not saying to exclude or prevent the worlds from colliding, but it’s easy for junior staff to focus on implementing what’s been asked rather than stepping back for a moment and taking a critical look and offering an alternative. That, and you’re the new thing — I think it’s important to make the effort to find the common ground. It’s going to be smart and gracious if the new thing makes the effort. That’s the real underlying message. 

  2. I’ll add:

    – treat someone’s suggestion as data points that hint at the experience that’s possible.
    – *always* question a suggested implementation, even if it’s in your own mind, to make sure you understand intent
    – feel free to suggest non-tech alternatives, especially if they’re cheaper or more effective.
    – take every opportunity to teach someone else more about the effectiveness or subtleties of a particular kind of technology, share knowledge and experience. 
    – recognize that people’s suggestions are limited primarily what they’ve seen and experience. You’ve likely seen and considered a much broader universe.
    – you shouldn’t be creating something that satisfies a feature list, you should be creating an experience (that’s the difference between an iPhone and an android phone)
    – you’re really building trust.

  3. Great point about suggesting non-tech alternatives. In Rainer Mack’s Interloper Report from MW2012, he talks about Erica Gangsei’s ArtGameLab session, where “no one batted an eye at the fact that the Lab’s games were all on paper, or “analog””. So it becomes about finding the right solution, and not necessarily the *tech* solution.

    Meanwhile, I’m stuck on the other issues. One one hand, I fully believe that we need to be generous with our knowledge and bring others along for the ride. On the other hand, if someone in your institution didn’t understand how to use Word or Excel, whose responsibility would it be to give them the skills to use it? Basic computer skills have become all pervasive and necessary, but the digital skills that have really become important are ones like search, maybe moreso than publish. Which are the right skills that people need to have to survive and thrive in the digital age?

  4. I agree, Bruce. I don’t see this as zero-sum, but I do want to be cautious that us trying to find common ground doesn’t become an institution-stagnating justification of tech that doesn’t need justifying. 

    Me working with a curator to find a workable solution to a problem that may or may not involve tech is something I’m happy to spend many hours on. Sitting in endless meetings arguing about Whether We Should Have A Blog with staff who neither read nor write blogs is not. 

    And I recognize that we’re the new thing, which is why I’m far more gracious about this stuff in person than I am when I write about it 😉 However, we’re new, but we’re also how the rest of the world works. The world won’t slow down to work at museum speed, so I feel that a big part of my job is getting the museum to move at tech-speed.

  5. And this is something we should talk in more depth about, but a big part of the problem is that many museum position descriptions haven’t evolved with the times. There are exceptions to this, obviously, but I can’t think of many curatorial job postings that begin with “please send a resume and link to your personal blog.” I fear that until this changes, we continue to send the signal that it’s okay to not speak this language.

    (That said, if someone at my museum is having difficulty with Excel, I’m obviously going to help them out. That IS in my job description;)

  6.  I just replied to a commenter on my original post about this same issue. If museum leadership isn’t blogging/tweeting themselves (which they might not be… it requires both time, and learning in public), then they won’t understand the value of the medium as greatly as someone who is. But if leadership doesn’t understand the value, then the push to do these things will probably come more from the bottom up instead of the top down. And that’s fine, but it means it’s more likely to be an uphill battle.

  7. The lesson I took from MW – and that I wanted to express in my post on the MW site  – was that all of us non-media museum people need to get ourselves into the media conversation, not the other way around.  So I completely agree with where you are headed, Koven and Suse.  And would say that the real question is how to get tech INTO the curatorial/education/design/etc. conversation.  For you all to try to figure out how to talk like curators (et al.) is a dead end.  You are the ones transforming how information and culture is consumed/communicated, so it’s up to the curators (et al.) to  begin to learn your language. 

  8. I don’t know how it works in other museums but in mine, the curator calls the shots. I don’t . For me to expect that he’s going to embrace what I do is a bit naive. The art comes first, how it’s put together, and the idea it’s communicating. 

    And while tech in museum is my job, it’s what we do, I don’t think it needs to permeate everything. Experiencing art on it’s own can be a transformative experience. I see my job as enriching that experience, to support that experience and the mission of the museum which is largely to teach (we are on a college campus after all ).

    In all honesty I wrongly assumed curators considered visitor experience. Its such an integral part of what I do of course it made sense that it was their mission as well. I found out today that was secondary. 

    The folks at the conference who had success with tech in galleries etc had support from the top. So Suse, I agree with you, it will otherwise be an uphill battle,which I think can be won by taking tech out of the conversation and taking a step back to assess the experience as Bruce suggests.

  9. “Sitting in endless meetings arguing about Whether We Should Have A Blog with staff who neither read nor write blogs is not” … I’d agree with that in a heartbeat. I’d rather get the blog built and running and then when people question whether we need it to be in the position of pulling out the metrics of what’s already working or not. 

    More things faster works pretty well and asking for apologies rather than permission. 😉

  10.  @Suse: It’s about risk and learning to accept some. Discussions on your blog have gone down this same path. We can’t play it safe all the time anymore. We have to be willing to accept some risk and experiment out in the open. Luckily for us, people in general are getting more forgiving of failure if they see institutions trying something truly innovative and new (this is a generalization, I know. But in my experience, in my native culture it bears out. I hope it’s true elsewhere too).

    It’s not about getting leadership to understand the value of blogging. It’s about getting them to accept the risk of trying something new in public. Otherwise, they’re not going to get on board with any new media initiative no matter who is doing the blogging. It’s not tech-averse leadership that’s the root of the problem, but risk-averse leadership. Once you remove fear from the equation, explaining the tech and its benefits becomes a relatively simple task.

    I think the accelerated rate of change in recent years has started to get tiring for a lot of people. It’s hard to keep up with sometimes. And confusion can cause fear. So it’s a downward spiral, being confused makes them afraid which causes them to retreat further from that which is confusing them, confusing them even more, making them more afraid… etc.

    Of course, the upside is that once you start to succeed in educating your stakeholders and reducing their fear it starts a virtuous cycle in the other direction.

  11. Suse maybe the public learning curve problem can be fixed by teaching the upper level managers some online etiquette (ex when do you reply to a tweet, do you have to comment every time someone mentions you on twitter or writes on your blog etc). If you could hold workshops or send out information about things like online etiquette I think that could help immensely. Or am I being naive thinking this could work? 

  12. I have to agree with Rainer here. This  issue is fundamentally more about the shifting definition of “museum” than the role of tech, or who is, or isn’t talking to each other. The act of thinking of tech as “ordinary” as plumbing, means that conservatives have to acknowledge this shift, to admit to themselves that the picture of the world that they have known, or spent their careers developing, is not complete anymore. 

    Talked to a lot of people at MW this year about the need to get more curators, educators, etc., etc,. etc. involved in shaping this conversation.

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