Museums In the Digital Domain, Part Two – Disruptive Technology

October 22, 2009

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This post is Part Two of a series of posts. You can read Part One, with a brief introduction, here .

The economist Herbert Simon identified the issue of how to determine value in a world of abundant and free information in 1971–he called it the “allocation of attention”:

“…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.”

-Herbert A. Simon, “Designing Organizations for an Information-Rich World

When most engagements with visitors occurred within the museum walls, a certain amount of captive attention from audiences was guaranteed. In the digital domain, there is an exponential increase in competition for that same attention. What this means is that the most critical success factor for museums in the digital domain is not the production of content, but rather the allocation of attention to that content. This doesn’t mean that content production is not critical (after all, museums must have information to direct attention to), but the presence of that content alone no longer guarantees attention from audiences. A shift in value has taken place, from the production of content to its consumption by audiences. This value shift is not an easy one for any content-producing organization to accept. The nature of this shift only begins to make more sense once one begins to think of digital production and distribution of content not as a more efficient version of the publishing schemes of old, but rather an altogether different type of beast, with its own requirements and its own rules–a disruptive rather than a sustaining technology.

Disruptive Technology ” is a term coined by Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen to refer to technologies introduced to a given industry that upset an existing value paradigm. Dominant players in industries upended by disruptive technologies often do not at first recognize the value of these technologies because they foster the creation of new markets rather than sustaining the existence of current ones. As we see with trading production value for attention value, disruptive technologies usually represent the trading of one set of values for another.

The classic disruptive technology of the Internet era is the mp3. The mp3 is a compressed digital audio format in which a degree of audio quality is sacrificed for the sake of creating a smaller, more portable file. Significantly, the mp3 was also the first widespread music delivery technology to be created outside the normal production channels of the recording industry. Because of this, as Eric Harvey states in a recent article for Pitchfork, mp3s “performed the radical task of separating music from the music industry for the first time in a century.”

The recording industry’s analysis of then-current markets concluded that the audio quality of the mp3 was simply too low to be of any real value to most consumers. What consumers were really looking for, studies showed, was high fidelity audio formats like the Compact Disc. However, as is typical with most disruptive technologies, market research could not predict the emergence of a new market, one in which the metrics of value are significantly different. As it turned out, consumers were willing to trade a previous value standard–fidelity–for a new one–portability. Wired magazine summed up this trade succinctly: “The big advance—the one that had all the impact—was the move to easier-to-manage bits. Compared with that, improved sound quality just doesn’t move the needle.” The recording industry failed to predict this market transformation, and were caught off guard when consumers’ standards of quality no longer matched the industry’s.

In a parallel to the situation with mp3s, portals like Wikipedia have enabled content about cultural heritage to be produced outside the cultural heritage sector. Wikipedia is a large (3,040,380 articles in the English version as of September 22, 2009) online encyclopedia whose articles are contributed and edited entirely by the public at large. The value proposition promised by Wikipedia is significantly different than that promised by organizations like museums. Wikipedia promises easy availability, a commonly understood presentation format, and absolutely up-to-the-second information in place of unimpeachable authority.

It is this very promise of authority (and the trust earned via that authority) upon which museums have by and large staked their reputations. However, despite studies showing that museums and libraries are still the most trusted institutions in the United States, Wikipedia repeatedly shows up at the top of search results lists for topics that should be a strength for museums, and images used in blog posts and other electronic media are fare more likely to come from Flickr than they are from museums’ own Web sites. Why is this?

It is simply that museums are now making the same mistake made by the recording industry. In making the move to the digital domain, museums have assumed that what constituted value when interactions occurred in the physical building will still constitute value when those interactions occur online. And, in an eerie parallel with the recording industry’s mp3 market research, recent studies from IMLS and AAM show that museums’ current audiences really want authority. Unfortunately, fast and cheap electronic publishing has created an entirely new audience (read: market) that both threatens to engulf the old audience and values something entirely different. As it turns out, what this new audience requires is accessibility and findability, exactly the areas in which resources like Wikipedia excel and in which museums lag far, far behind. However much museums try to promote their authority and infallibility as superior to that of Wikipedia, the new audience simply doesn’t value these qualities in the way the old audience did. “You can’t protect old business models artificially,” stated Peter Chernin (past president of News Corp) about online TV site Hulu .

What museums must learn from this new market is that they must be willing to adapt to the needs of new audiences as they emerge, and be capable of delivering content to these audiences. This implies a flexibility in technical infrastructure as well as a flexibility of mindset. Clayton Christensen refers to this as creating plans to learn, rather than plans to execute.

Continue on to Part Three.

Of possible further interest: