Leave tech in the conversation

April 19, 2012

Old-ish Content Warning!

You are viewing a post that’s more than three years old. There’s a good chance that a lot of the following is seriously out-of-date (or at least not reflective of my current thinking on this topic). Proceed with caution.

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.

Of possible further interest: