musings

Stranger on a Plane

If you’re a museum technologist, there are six words that you hear from your Director on their first day back from a trip, that will instill fear and loathing:

I sat next to this guy…

You know what’s coming next:

… and he has this software…

Its at this point that your reptilian brain starts wrestling control as you envision reaching across the Director’s desk, and slapping him (because let’s face it, it usually is a “him”, “her”-type directors are not as easily swayed by men in suits peddling software) upside his head.

Let’s pause for a moment to relish how satisfying that slapping noise would be…

Its almost worth losing your job over. OK, maybe not, but it would be a little reminder for him not to talk to strangers on planes, because you’ll now have to have that awkward conversation with the vendor, who is wetting his pants over the prospect of a sure-fire sale, because the man at the top, has already sanctioned it. I’ve had many of these conservations over the years, once, someone threatened to tell my boss that I was actively sabotaging the museum and was guilty of insubordination. Only once did I actually purchase some software based on a fortuitous meeting in first class, by my boss.

As we should all be aware, technology is a solution to a problem. If we don’t define or even have a problem, the technology solution isn’t going to work. And maybe technology isn’t the solution, in 2005 the Getty launched a cutting-edge mobile system to guide visitors around the campus and provide streaming media and interpretive content based on location sensing. It was pulled after a few months due to, what was euphemistically referred to as, operational challenges. We made some attempts and proposals to salvage the infrastructure. One of my suggestions, only partly in jest, was that maybe we should have directed all that money to an expanded paid-docent program, and offered every visitor their own private tour. Believe me when I say that with the money we spent, most visitors could have had their own private tour. Fortunately the content itself was destined to live a long a fruitful life and can still be seen on our website and our in-gallery technologies. The hardware, in the form of Dell Axioms, was destined to fill the Christmas stockings of staff’s children.

But it appears we are not done with picking the technology first and worrying about what problem we’re solving later. How many times have you heard your director, or anyone else, say:

“We need an app…”

It appears that “we need an app…” is the new “I sat next to this guy…”.

For many in the museum world, technology is a “thing”, which is understandable in an environment where everything is regarded as a thing to be accessioned, documented, displayed and interpreted. For a museum technologist, technology is a process, a learning experience, it has a dimension. To a director (or a non-technologist), technology is a thing that periodically breaks. How many times have you heard this?:

“You’re <insert name of technology here> broke. Let’s get some consultants in. You clearly don’t know what you’re doing”.

This phrase is normally an opportunity for said Director or non-technologist to exaggerate the problem out of all proportion, emphasizing their categorization of it as a thing, such as “the website is down” when in fact they found the single “404” error in the entire website.

To a museum technologist, when a technology breaks, its actually an opportunity to gain a little more insight into that technology, another step on the process. In the same way that Physicists fire high-energy particles at lumps of metal and are able to figure out the fundamental nature of matter by seeing what comes out of it, so technologists figure out how technology works by observing what broke it or how it breaks.

Programming is one example, (and not just an example of something that periodically breaks). To the non-technologist, programming is a world of ones and zeroes, either or, clear-cut decisions, limited options and no guesswork, computers just do what there are told to do, programs either work or they doesn’t. But programming is anything but. It is an extremely creative process, creating something from nothing, its fraught with inaccuracies and guesswork, why else would it periodically fail? Writing code and watching it fail, is the equivalent of painting a detail and stepping back to observe how that detail works within the whole. To prove my point, check out these real examples of code documentation from stackoverflow.com:

//When I wrote this, only God and I understood what I was doing
//Now, God only knows

// Magic. Do not touch.

// I'm sorry…
// Please work.

// This isn't the right way to deal with this, but today is my last day, Ron
// just spilled coffee on my desk, and I'm hungry, so this will have to do...
return 12; // 12 is my lucky number

// If you're reading this, that means you have been put in charge of my previous project.
// I am so, so sorry for you. God speed.

A program or application is not a thing, it’s a process, as is all technology – a work in progress. This is why technology needs support, maintenance, feeding and watering. Like a puppy is not just for Christmas, technology is not just a thing. Museums are places where there is too much focus on things, and the creation of “products”: a collection object, an exhibition, a book or a museum – discreet stuff.

So how does one stop thinking of technology as a thing? Because its important that we do. It needs to be thought of as dimensional and not finite. In many respects technology is solving three core problems that museums face in the networked environment: distance, scale and speed. Technology is the solution to how a museum can educate and engage at a distance – our digital audience demographic who will never physically consume our “things”. Scale and speed are the emerging requirements for how we compete for the attention of those audiences and deliver content in the information age – technology is how we will address these needs. No one has done a better job of articulating these external forces and the requirement than Mike Edson in The Age of Scale and The Make-Good Mission.

I’ll give the final words to a quote from Piotr Czerski and a blog post that I came across via @5easypieces’s awesome blog of “semi-random things I find interesting”. The post is entitled “We, the Web Kids” and is about two years old, but elegantly captures how distinct digital natives are from digital immigrants, of which I am a card-carrying member, particularly how they view technology and specifically, the Internet. The most telling things for me are how he describes the Internet, where we might use the internet to “do something”, categorising it as a thing, he categorises it as a dimension:

We do not use the Internet, we live on the Internet and along it.

And, again:

The Web is a process, happening continuously and continuously transforming before our eyes; with us and through us. Technologies appear and then dissolve in the peripheries, websites are built, they bloom and then pass away, but the Web continues, because we are the Web…

It is a deeply fascinating read, particularly if you have teenage daughters and wonder what could possibly be sooooo interesting on their iPhone? Its the Internet happening before their eyes, much more interesting than Dad happening to nod off after a busy day at the office.

I’ll finish by apologizing to the entire museum programming community, for exposing the reality and dark art of programming.

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