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Back to the Future

June 21, 2011

At the time of writing, I am in the peculiar position of being exactly where I would have aspired to be ten years ago, yet feel rather surprised and ill-equipped to be here.

Let me explain.

Back in 2003 I finished a Master’s degree in Digital Media at the University of Sussex. My initial plan was to undertake DPhil research in the use of digital technology in the construction of historical narratives, but it didn’t happen. I was fortunate enough to become sidetracked by a job at Brighton’s Royal Pavilion and Museums. Since then, I’ve done a variety of jobs, mostly working with its photographic collections, and the digital, while always central to my work, was not always my focal point.

That’s changed. As of 1 April 2011 I am RPM’s Digital Development Officer. I’m presently involved in everything from tweeting to image management. It’s a great opportunity, but it’s also forced me to reacquaint myself with many of the ideas and debates I’d left behind a good eight years ago. Essentially, I’m playing catch up with my own ambitions.

To help me bang my thoughts into some sort of discernible shape, I have decided to start a blog. This is probably a doomed venture: most days I can barely update my Facebook status, and a commitment to regular streams of coherent paragraphs seems ambitious at best. But since today is the longest day of the year, and the one day when I ought not to complain of a lack of time, this is probably the most auspicious date to start.

But that’s really enough about me. I shall use this first post to simply note what’s changed and what’s happened since I was last pointed in a digital direction. Some of it surprises me; much of it doesn’t.

What’s New?

  • Social Media. Back when I was studying, a regular subject of debate was the validity of ‘virtual communities’. Facebook was over a year away from launch, and I doubt anyone would have believed that such an absurdly titled service could swallow half a billion people. Web 2.0 had not yet been proffered as the latest promise; eight years later it already sounds tired.
  • In 2003 I thought we would all need to embrace database logic. That’s still true; but in 2011 the stronger impulse is for databases to become invisible. We all navigate databases, are all reliant on their logic in answering our questions. But we want to forget the databases are there.
  • I used to think we would one day digitise all of our collections. Seems like a romantic notion already.

What hasn’t changed?

  • Hype. Internet technologies and the language used to describe them have always been coated in sticky hubris. The internet will change everything, our lives are becoming increasingly connected… blah, blah. It was beginning to irritate me in 2003, but I’d always hoped the novelty of its potential would have faded by the second decade of the twenty first century. But it’s still there. One example can be found in the SCAMORE guide to Maximising Online Resource Effectiveness. I should stress that, for the most part, it is a well written and informative document that I have found enormously helpful and would heartily recommend. But its opening paragraph contains this silly sentence: ‘The human race has never before been so technologically advanced or experienced such an accelerated boom of technical achievements.’ Surely much the same could be said of any point in time since the industrial revolution, if not before? It’s not that such rhetoric is wrong or harmful, but it doesn’t help the digital cause. Whenever I read such statements I can hear the beating of Icarus’s wings: grand statements may release an ovation from a converted audience, but they do not encourage debate or sensible consideration.
  • There is still an assumption that the ‘techy person’ will do the ‘computer stuff’. It’s common for new technologies to temporarily breed new professions: think of trained typists. But many of these professions fade as the necessary skills become absorbed into the wider workforce, and become assumed rather than additional. With digital technology we seem to be regularly chasing this familiar arc with each new development, while rarely appreciating the historical ironies. The use of social media specialists in museums is the latest example. I believe we’ll only really get to grips with social media when it becomes part of widespread museum practice, so that curators, learning officers and others are using these media as part of their daily activities. As someone who is, at least nominally, a social media ‘specialist’, I aspire to my own obsolescence. One of my main ambitions for my present role is to become less of a showman and more of a ringmaster.

One final thought before I sign off. Last Friday I was invited to speak at the Museums Computer Group’s summer meeting in Brighton. Having only been in my post for a couple of months, I was rather nervous of the occasion. Yet it proved to be a thoroughly stimulating event, and refreshingly unmired in jargon or technical obscurantism. While I’m still grappling with the technologies and ideas of my new corner of the museum world, this gave me a healthy confidence to press forward.

On that optimistic note, I shall don my red coat and top hat, and head for the big top…

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  1. A little drama, please « The fauxtoegrafik blog

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