musings

The Graceful Slide to Temporary

I worry that we’re on a graceful slide to temporary when we should be on the bumpy road to sustainability. What is he talking about?

In the words of Kevin Hart: let me explain…

Here’s a graph of content sustainability against time, and so it looks like I know what I’m talking about, the time axis is logarithmic.

Content sustainability over time

Clearly the Sumerians had cracked the whole sustainability thing millenia ago. I wonder if they even thought about the longevity of the content they were  creating? Today, any self-respecting digital archivist would give his left testicle for content sustainability of this order of magnitude – assuming said archivist was a man. Which begs the question: what is the female equivalent of a saying that denotes significant sacrifice for dubious return?

An order of magnitude down from Cuneiform tablets and we have manuscripts. Thanks to the ecclesiastical profession, who clearly had a solid strategy in place for sustainability based largely on access or lack of it, manuscripts have survived for centuries unless they were unceremoniously burned or overwritten – the earliest surviving example(?) of overwriting data perhaps? No chance for data recovery then either.

An order of magnitude down from manuscripts, we cross the analogue/digital K-T Boundary and have Craigslist. The amazing thing about Craigslist is that it is one of the most sustainable websites out there, it has been unfettered by the constant onslaught of browser emergence, upgrade, downgrade, fancy plug-in and flash and java incompatibility. Any self-respecting museum technologist would give his or her left… etc, etc, for a website that was this browser-upgrade resilient and low maintenance. In truth, I suspect this is a bit of a stretch, but the way craigslist has been architected lends itself more than most websites to low maintenance.

An order of magnitude down from craigslist and we have rich media experiences, which on a scale of zero to sustainability… are usually not. By way of example, I’ve picked on the Getty, using the Devices of Wonder exhibition website. It is still a heavily-trafficked website built in flash. Sustainable? Not so much. There is still a substantial percentage of web visitors who can take advantage of this interactive experience, but as we all know, that is on a graceful downward slide too.

This is an example of a rich-media presentation that is heavily browser-dependent which would equal high maintenance if it were on anyone’s priority list to revisit, ergo, its temporality is assured. As painful as it is to revisit the memory of building this website – it was a black-hole consuming, death-spiraling, morale-declining experience that I guarantee nobody wants to relive, but at the time we were smart enough to make a flat html version, which tablets and smartphones are totally happy with, but sad for the lack of interactivity. With my recovering-physicist hat on, I would therefore deduce that interactivity = low sustainability and a seat on the slide to temporary.

DOW interactive version

DOW Interactive Version

DOW flat HTML version

DOW Flat Version

It doesn’t have to be this way. We’re much smarter now. We build presentation frameworks and keep our data separate. In the same way that Craigslist is a data-driven site, we build interactive skins and websites fed from data, right?

I said, that’s what we’re all doing, right? We are applying data best practices and separating out our content from the presentation, right? Please tell me that you on that bumpy, extra-effort, more-resources-required, harder-to-get-your-boss’s-approval-for, bumpy road to build something that is sustainable.

The NMC Horizon Report: 2013 Museum Edition captures this challenge as:

Museums are not doing a sufficient job of creating a sustainable environment to manage and deploy collection information and digital assets.

I’ve always considered museums to be graceful and elegant, with a few notable exceptions, and consequently I see museums on a graceful slide to temporary and unsustainable instances of their content. There’s a bipolarity at work here. On the one hand (collecting) museums have a deep, ingrained preservation mission to ensure that their objects survive the ages, but on the other hand there is a temporary philosophy applied to how they present those works, we actually call them temporary exhibitions, and that philosophy extends to digital. Nobody cares (museum technologists exempted) that an online exhibition treatment no longer functions as it used to, because the exhibition is not longer there.

I’m reminded of an interview I had with a senior curator in the midst of a disaster-planning exercise. I explained scenarios to him and we would document solutions. We covered earthquakes, fire, &c, and then I explained the scenario of an EMP attack in which all technology, phones, computers, etc, would be rendered useless together with a possible loss of all computer data, including digital surrogates of his works. He was incandescent with joy with the fact that there was, albeit minuscule, the possibility that all this electrickery and digital surrogacy might one day, just vanish. The graceful slide to temporary is preordained.

To avoid the slide, the solution is simple: never build anything as a product with a single destination, build it as a service to serve multiple destinations, platforms or channels. If its an interactive build it for at least two destinations: a kiosk and your website, it’ll help disconnect the data from the presentation. Of course, the ultimate would be to build something for print and digital – that’s what I’m working on – wish me luck.

Avoiding the slide will definitely cost more and take longer, but that’s the price for sustainability, just ask the monks.

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