Category Archives: Design process

On doing the hard stuff

I spent my last weekend before vacation at Princeton University, taking part in the Museum Computer Network’s Board of Directors Strategy Retreat. It was long, it was painful, it sucked at times, and it was great!

Both signs were apt.

Both signs were apt.

A problem that the Board had been grappling with for some time was that we were feeling a bit unfocused, yet too busy with our jobs to really tackle any of the endemic, intractable problems that any long-lived organization faces. It’s a classic work problem; busyness preventing the concentrated effort required to replace busyness with targeted action. Our regular board calls are always full of agenda items, and our twice yearly meetings are great at surfacing issues, but not at digging into them. So we made the decision to convene an extraordinary board retreat at a location as convenient as possible for as  many directors as possible and lock ourselves in a room until we’d come out with a revised vision for the organization, a list of programs we’d like to see MCN undertake in the next three years, and a series of roadmaps that would help us drive the three top priorities forward. A daunting list!

Here are some takeaways from the event.

Hard stuff can be fun
What I took away from the retreat was that it’s good to feel stretched. The exercise was a classic example of Seymour Papert’s idea of hard fun. While we were at it, we were operating near the limits of our ability. Managing to do the job created a particular type of hard fun that Nicole Lazzarro called fiero, “triumphing over adversity”. The joy of successfully taking on the hard work and making progress against it is intoxicating. Nietzsche defined happiness as “The feeling that power is growing, that resistance is overcome.”

Friday, 10:30 PM. Catching up.

Friday, Midnight. Catching up.

Facilitation matters

Carolyn Royston, the Treasurer of MCN and a stellar facilitator, agreed to take on the formal role of facilitator for the retreat, and it was central to our success to have someone who was only looking at the goals for the event, setting the agenda, keeping us honest, reminding us to be respectful of each other, and encouraging us to keep at it. Too often, I’ve been in meetings and groups where its not clear who’s taking care of the meeting. Carolyn also made it quite clear to us that she could not and would not participate in the event, even though she’s an integral part of the group, because she knew we’d need someone dedicated to the task at hand, not another voice trying to participate. That was a big sacrifice for her, because she’s passionate about the work we do and going it better.

Saturday, 7AM. The Executive Committee plots out the day.

Saturday, 7AM. The Executive Committee plots out the day.

The Executive Committee also took it’s role in shaping the conversation very seriously and was able to be a united front, even when things got messy. We all at various times were called on to jump in and lead a conversation, do a job that suddenly needed to be done, and help facilitate when the discussions got hot and heavy. Each morning we got up stupidly early, so we could go over what we wanted to do that day, and assign roles. Even that little bit of extra effort paid off handsomely. It would’ve been easy to lay the burden entirely on the shoulders of our facilitator, but having the job distributed among five people made it much more doable.

Having the right people in the room

We had previously surveyed a number of past presidents of the organization about our plans, and asked two of them to join us to provide their experience. The fact that they were willing to give up a weekend was impressive. They were able to provide the kind of institutional memory that is always bleeding out of volunteer-run organizations, and we needed it several times when we got lost in our own particular circumstances. Rob Lancefield in particular, a long-time MCN member, was great at having a long duration view and helping us contextualize what we doing. There was no other way we could have known the things they did, so bringing them along essential.

Saturday, 9AM. All brightened and bushy-tailed and ready to work.

Saturday, 9AM. Two ex-Presidents, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and ready to work.

Working smart, and small
With such a huge pile of work and a large group (15) it would’ve been unwieldy to try to do all our work in one large discussion. Carolyn did a great job of using the whole group to set agendas, surface issues, and then divided us up to work on pieces in parallel. We would then reconvene to comment on the work of the small groups and refine, argue, and add.

Saturday, Noon. Breaking down big problems into manageable pieces.

Saturday, Noon. Breaking down big problems into manageable pieces.

Working in small groups and then coming together to discuss really helps.

Working in small groups and then coming together to discuss really helps.

Acknowledging that it’s hard and sucks sometimes is important
One thing I’m surprised by is how many people equate hard with bad. Throughout the weekend, Carolyn reminded the group constantly about the difficulty of trying to do what we were doing. “Why wallow in it?” you might ask. I think it’s important to recognize the difficulty of what you’re doing, and communicate that. Especially when it feels like it’s not working out, having that validation that “This is hard, and its going to be harder, but you can do it.” can make the difference between people buckling down and giving up. It also makes getting it easier to acknowledge the accomplishment of getting through it.

Sunday afternoon. Hitting that point in Day 2 when the wheels feel like they're coming off.

Sunday afternoon. Hitting that point in Day 2 when the wheels feel like they’re coming off.

Sunday 2 PM. Pulling it together in the end. From chaos, order emerges.

Sunday 2 PM. Pulling it together in the end. From chaos, order emerges.

Taking the work seriously and taking yourself seriously aren’t the same thing

If you were wondering what fiero looks like in a professional context, I present Exhibit A. Stay tuned for details about what we’ve got in store. 2017 will be MCN’s 50th anniversary, and the Jubilee Year is going to be great!

Feeling giddy with excitement that we did it! This is my kind of Board of Directors.

Feeling giddy with excitement that we did it! This is my kind of Board.

Representing abundance in collections

Janet Carding and I have been talking about her upcoming CODE|WORDS essay on change management in the digital era, and one painful truth she points out is that she still goes to events where museum leaders talk about putting their collections online and making them available to search, a full generation after this problem was first solved. And that solution – search – is itself hugely problematic, for me, and others, I think, largely because of how stingy we are in how we provide access to those collections.

CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Paul Lowry

CC-BY 2.0 image by Flickr user Paul Lowry

Once upon a time, when you wanted to find out something, you’d go to the library and look in a card catalogue for a topic or a title. Once you got a number, you’d go wander the aisles or stacks, looking at book spines for the right number. Maybe you’d find what you were looking for. Maybe you wouldn’t. But in either case, you’d encounter a ton of information on the way that would give you both a sense of what you were looking for and what information surrounded it.

Fast forward to 2015 and how have we advanced in our ability to present vast sums of knowledge?

 

 

 

 

Bit of a let down, isn’t it?

Hold the idea of being in the library stacks and then look at the blank search box, revealing nothing, mocking your ignorance, coyly withholding its treasures and forcing you to figure out what magic formula will get it to show you the goods. As Mitchell Whitelaw points out in his excellent article “Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections”

“Decades of digitisation have made a wealth of digital cultural material available online. Yet search — the dominant interface to these collections — is incapable of representing this abundance. Search is ungenerous: it withholds information, and demands a query.”

I expressed a strong opinion on this in my CODE|WORDS essay “The Virtues of Promiscuity”

“Let’s be clear that what I’m talking about is not “Let’s put the collection online” by making a database with a web interface. Access is important, but a web portal is an oracular cave, dark and mysterious. You go into the dark place, ask your question, and the Sibyl answers. Hopefully, it makes sense. Sometimes, it’s a very detailed answer, sometimes not. But the seeker never has the ability to appreciate the collection as a whole, or to interrogate it in any ways other than those chosen by the architects of the CMS and the portal. And they’re black holes to indexers. Google, Yahoo! and Baidu have no way of knowing what lies beyond your search box, and in a world where findability equals existence, this is death. Actually it’s worse, it’s annihilation — being made into nothing. Not a great strategy for proving relevance.”

The really frustrating thing is that the problem with search has been recognized as a problem pretty much since the beginning. At the very first Museums and the Web conference in 1997(!), in “The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web & the Evolution of Museum Automation”, Kevin Donovan wrote,

“The search interface approach employs the frightful blank search field method of providing access to data. This method reproduces the most inscrutable characteristics of database technology, a technology so daunting that even within museums only those deliberate souls whose jobs depend on it, collections managers and registrars, will use it.”

We’re talking 1997 Web 1.0 days, when there was no Facebook, no Twitter, and Netscape Navigator had a 62% market share compared to Internet Explorer’s 35% (over half of whom were using IE3 on Windows 95 machines). Even then, when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, search was unsatisfying and problematic.

So, what are alternatives?

I’m sure (I hope?) that there are museum collections that can be explored in more generous ways than search. If you know of any, send me a link, eh? Here are two examples I know of, though both are long in the tooth now.

The Visual Thesaurus is an interactive dictionary and thesaurus, based on the Thinkmap architecture. It was all the rage around the turn of the millennium. I recall owning a copy of it on floppy disk. Luckily, the web version continues to this day. It’s a great tool for exploring the relationships between words and their meanings. It allows you to drift from word to word and concept to concept, all while showing you the landscape around the object of your study. It’s a great tool, and had obvious museum applications from the get-go. Thinkmap and the Experience Music Project presented “Artifact as Inspiration: Using existing collections and management systems to inform and create new narrative structures” at MW2001. It’s still relevant, 14 years later. I tried a couple of times to get projects off the ground using Thinkmap, but with no luck.

Planetary is an example of both visualization and of evolving museum practice. It was a great iPad app for visualizing your iTunes music library that employed a novel conceit: it used a planetary system metaphor for displaying metadata. Artists were stars, albums were planets, tracks were moons. It was a very different take on looking at your music, and the visuals were amazing. Here’s a look.

An interesting postscript to Planetary’s short life was that it was the first digital object the Cooper Hewitt collected, in 2013. “Planetary: Collecting and Preserving code as a living object” raises a number of issues about ways of visualizing abundance.  I added some commentary at the time, too.

Conclusion

Both of these models offer glimpses of how exploring museum datasets could be more interesting, more generous, and more useful to our audiences. It’s a great opportunity to innovate, because the stakes are so high. Putting our abundant resources out on the open web won’t gain us much if we don’t find ways to make them more inviting, to lure potential explorers into their depths, and to encourage the kinds of serendipitous explorations that a trip through the stacks could produce. I’ll leave you with another Whitelaw quote that says it better than I would.

The stakes here are high, because the interface plays an inescapable role in mediating digital heritage. Whether a command-line console or an immersive visualisation, these collections come to us in some specific, concrete form; and crucially, that form is constructed and contingent. It can always be otherwise. As our cultural heritage is increasingly networked and digital, the life and use of that heritage will increasingly be conditioned by the forms in which it reaches us, how it is made concrete and available both for scholars and the wider public. As argued above, search-centred conventions offer meagre representational tools; while there are promising signs of a new generosity emerging, much more is possible.

References:

Mitchell Whitelaw
“Generous Interfaces for Digital Cultural Collections” DHQ: Digital Humanities Quarterly, Volume 9 Number 1, 2015

Ed Rodley
“The Virtues of Promiscuity: or, Why giving it away is the future”, CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum. 2014

Kevin Donovan
“The Best of Intentions: Public Access, the Web & the Evolution of Museum Automation” Museums and the Web 1997

Seb Chan
“Planetary: Collecting and Preserving code as a living object” Cooper Hewitt blog, 2013.

I’ve got a beef with “content”

Mm, mm, good!

Mm, mm, good!

Content (noun)
the substance or material dealt with in a speech, literary work, etc., as distinct from its form or style.

late Middle English: from medieval Latin contentum (plural contenta ‘things contained’), neuter past participle of continere (see contain).

Earlier in my career when I developed exhibitions, I grew to loathe the word “content”. This was unfortunate since I used it all the time in writing and speech, and later had it added to my job title. Once, a vendor pitching their mobile app development platform actually used the sentence “Just pour in your content here! We take care of the rest.” I didn’t buy their product.

It’s a classic weasel word, so generic it tells you nothing. It’s a term so flavorless that if you like stories and knowledge and stuff and ideas at all, it’ll sap the joy from you. As part of the commentary on The Andy Warhol Museum’s Digital Strategy repository on GitHub, Seb Chan said “when other industries use the term ‘content’ it means something interchangeable and of short-term value.” Jeff Inscho from the Warhol wrote, “The word doesn’t do museum missions justice and it cheapens the integrity of our subject matter.” I think they’re right. “Content” is the spackle of the digital realm; homogenous, bland, and endless. Just add as much as you need to fill any space!

What we talk about when we talk about content

So that’s my beef with a perfectly good word like content. Partly it’s what Seb and Jeff said, the term implies interchangeable stuff of little value and quality. Looking back, I also felt that “content” as a term was a way of privileging other aspects of a product over what I (and many other content creators) thought of as the meat of any project; the ideas, objects, and experiences that made our work valuable. Granted, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, but I just can’t shake the sense that there is something pejorative about content in the contexts we tend to use it in. You can almost see the handwaving that occurs when people talk about “content” as a way of acknowledging its existence while dismissing it so they can get onto the good stuff, be it interface, or aesthetics or hardware.

So, what’s the alternative?

Good question. I don’t think there is a one-to-one synonym that’ll allow us to a global “find and replace” of content. And that’s kind of the point. I think as an abstraction, content is just too diffuse to be useful in many of the contexts in which we use it. While I was thinking about this I went back in the Warhol’s Digital Strategy to see how they’d handled it. Sure enough, content was replaced by different phrases in different places, depending on the context. I think that’s the practice I’m probably going to pursue going forward.

Note to self: If a term is so broad that you immediately have to clarify it with examples, don’t use it.

What is the Museum full stack?

“Stacked Pebbles, Spanish Bay” CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Christopher Chan

Following my post about Agile methodologies in museums, I wandered (as one does on the Internet) to adjacent topics. According to my Scrum Master brother, one of the anti-patterns in museums that makes Agile implementation difficult to fathom is the specialization of roles. Whereas software developers are expected to be familiar with all the layers of code that make up modern software “the full stack”, museum expertise is pretty highly differentiated. Curatorial is separate from interpretation which is separate from collections. It allows for great specialization, but makes it harder to see how all the pieces of museum work can and should fit together to make for great visitor engagement. It makes it hard to even see the digital manifestations of our work as belonging to a single stack, which makes it very hard to develop digital experiences that can take advantage of all the affordances the modern internet provides. It’s a classic wicked problem, where even trying to outline the contours of the issue is hard and changeable. But, those are the problems most worth poking at, right? So I started collecting stacks and looking for similarities, and potential applications.

So I tweeted my question into the ether,

and lo! Answers returned.

Other people are wrestling with the same or similar issues. We decided to have a higher-bandwidth conversation than Twitter allows and scheduled a time to hang out and talk. I had a great lunchtime chat the other day with colleagues in Pittsburgh (Jeff Inscho @staticmade), St. Paul (Bryan Kennedy @xbryanx), and San Diego (Chad Weinard @caw_) about the idea of the museum full stack and how and why to build it.

Part of the problem I think, is that the full stack is hard to comprehend and traditionally hasn’t even been thought of (outside of IT circles) as a data ecosystem, but rather as a series of disconnected systems, owned and operated by separate departments, with parochial concerns. Certainly my own experience with developing digital experiences reflects that. This is also partly an historical artifact. A lot of these systems probably can trace their lineages back to when they were separate, discrete systems that possessed little or no ability to interoperate. The Internet has wrecked that isolation, as it has so many other things. Time to build a new perception of the museum data ecosystem and say goodbye to the days when IT owned this piece, and that piece was Collections’ worry. The reality is much more interconnected.

Cooper Hewitt’s stack

A lot of the impetus for me starting this conversation was a post by Seb Chan about the Cooper Hewitt’ API, their stack and it’s centrality to their vision. It starts with the museum’s two “sources of truth”, the repositories of the two kinds of data that the Cooper Hewitt relies on; data about objects, and data about visitors. Go read the whole thing. It’s worth it. I immediately resonated with the graphic on several levels. We use some of the same systems, and have been wrestling with the same kinds of ideas around providing visitors with personalized experiences. I’m particularly interested in representing the abundance of information in collections, and it’s hard to do that in the dominant paradigm of “search”.

“Decades of digitisation have made a wealth of digital cultural material available online. Yet search — the dominant interface to these collections — is incapable of representing this abundance. Search is ungenerous: it withholds information, and demands a query.”

Mitchell Whitelaw

Cooper Hewitt’s stack, image by Katie Shelly

Cooper Hewitt’s approach of using the full stack approach makes it possible for them to provide visitors with multiple entry points into the collection through interactive experiences, what Mitchell Whitelaw would call more “generous interfaces”.  I find it hard to perceive any other way to do that without stepping back and looking at the full stack, seeing the forest through the trees as it were.

Here are a few of the other things that came up in our chat.

Objects, Experiences, People

Cooper Hewitt’s stack is a great model because it’s suitably specific. Their model would not likely be your model or anybody else’s, for that matter. The systems they rely on, and the staff expertise they bring to bear are unique. So their “two sources of truth” might not be yours. As Bryan pointed at, at his museum, Science Museum of Minnesota, they are as focused on the experiences they build as they are on the objects they use to populate some of those experiences. They are fundamental to the museum’s operation and incorporate content and ideas that don’t neatly fit in either source of truth. They’re not about objects, per se. For them, the experience is a truth that needs its own source. Cooper Hewitt doesn’t, but the Rijksmuseum might classify visitors’ digital creations as a separate source of truth, related to, yet distinct from the CMS or CRM systems. You get the idea?… At its most basic, atomic level, we want to be able to store, retrieve, and connect people, objects, and experiences.

What I find powerful about looking at the full stack of software platforms and services, is that it frees you from the mental constraint of the gallery, or the webpage. When you frame is an exhibition, everything looks like a kiosk. Same for good ole’ Web 1.0. The answer is usually a microsite or a web portal.

Monolithic systems break badly

Another issue that came up was the desire in some parts (often, but not always, administration) to create monolithic systems that will take care of everything. If you’ve been around long enough, you’ve probably run into vendors whose products will take care of all your digital needs. Their systems promise to be flexible, scalable, and easy to use (usually through the use of predefined templates). All your content will be seamlessly pushed to the destination of your choice, be it the exhibit hall or the Web. And though they may perform a lot of these functions, the reality is that they more often than not A) don’t deliver, and B) wind up becoming a straightjacket as the system ages, new systems join the ecosystem, and contracts/service agreements expire. As monolithic systems age, they don’t age gracefully, and when (not if) they break, they break badly.

Loose connections

That’s another place where designing systems and services that use the full stack is useful. The real power in  looking at the entire data ecosystem is that a hierarchy of linked systems can be loosely connected through APIs, assuming your stack layers are built on and use APIs. A break in any one of these loose connections is unlikely to bring your whole ecosystem crashing down, and the fix to one piece need not require an overhaul of the whole system. A stack that relies on APIs can be much more friendly to new platforms being integrated into the stack. The downside is that creating and managing this kind of ecosystem requires staff resources that are different than the resources needed to maintain one monolithic system, or a series of unconnected ones. And museums tend to privilege depth of knowledge over breadth, even in digital roles.

To that end I tried to put together a possible statement of what PEM’s stack looks like/could look like. I invite you  take a look. Add your own stack, too if you feel so inclined. Just make a new tab in the spreadsheet.

https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1A4al28YCZnpSn4Dl8ew2v2cmffc1ViIcbCWxwE6AVq8/edit#gid=1399901573

The power of attention

Frites, mayo & beer. It's that good!

Frites, mayo & beer. It’s that good!

I’ve recently returned from a week in the Netherlands, filming for Strandbeest: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen. We (the curator, our manager of AV production, and me) went over with a long list of video footage we needed to capture, and capture it we did. It was amazing. Interviewing Theo and shadowing him around was a real thrill. Holland in the Spring? ‘nuf said. Subsisting largely on cheese, butter, and beer and frites for a week? Yum… But what is rising up in me as one of the real benefits of travelling thousands of miles was the freedom it gave me to focus on one thing, to pay deep attention.

With layovers and hanging around in airport times, I had almost half a work week to do with as I pleased. Certainly some of that time was spent logisitically, worrying about schedules, playing around with interview questions, weighing options in case Plan A didn’t pan out. But that still left hours and hours to just think about the project, and doodle, storyboard, and imagine in a way that I often find it hard to do at work. And with the time difference, real-time communication with home wasn’t really practical. I had the gift of being undistracted by all the other priorities that fill workdays.

It was also a great bonding experience for those of us on the trip because we got to spend all day, every day, talking about the project, and riffing off each other’s ideas and observations. And the filming we did gave us hours and hours of time with the artist, listening to him describe his process, point of view, and outlook on life. By the end, we’d had hours of conversation about the pieces we’d come to shoot video for, and about the exhibition. I can see it now, in much more detail than I could before. I’ve written before about the way one refines one’s mental picture of a project as it progresses, and this trip was very crystallizing. And ultimately useful to the whole project team. We have both broadened and deepened our shared vision of what the show can be. And that took time.

Chip and I spent a lot of time on opposite sides of the camera.

Chip and I spent a lot of time on opposite sides of the camera.

Were we agile?

When something goes really well, I’m always interested in trying to analyze it and find things I can apply more broadly. I’ve also been reading about Agile software development, and I started to see commonalities between what worked in the Netherlands and Agile methods. I’ve long stood on the sidelines about translating methodoliges designed for software development and transplanting them in different arenas. The Agile methodology is the posterchild for this. I imagine you’ll hear it many time on the museum tech conference circuit if you haven’t already. I’m a hype skeptic, and I’m OK with that. Ask me about gamiification (ack!) if you need an example. But behind hype there is usually a kernel of truth, and Agile’s kernel (I think) is that it makes you devote attention to one task. If you’re a complete Agile newbie, go check out the Wikipedia entry for a good intro. In a nutshell, Agile is supposed to privilege:

  • Individuals and interactions over Processes and tools
  • Working software over Comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over Contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over Following a plan

In looking back over the week, I am starting to see how Agile methodologies could be applied to non-software development projects. Our morning breakfasts were essentially daily stand-up meetings where we discussed yesterday, laid out today, and looked forward to tomorrow as best as we could see. We shot whatever we thought we might need or want, even if it wasn’t on our list of things we needed. Our written descriptions for what we were doing and why did not preclude us from altering course during a shoot when new ideas presented themselves, and the videos will be better for it. As opportunities arose, we took them. Our customer was an active participant throughout the process, as was the artist, and their contributions and continuous feedback were crucial. It all sounds kinda Agile… Go figure.

Looking back, I can see that my approach to product development has always been more adaptive than predictive. So maybe it’s time to really dig in a bit more and see what esle Agile holds that might be useful.

Anybody else out there using any Agile methodolgies in museum work, especially outside of software development?

Prima Facie: Collections

Ed Rodley:

More small goodness from the Small Museum, who are taking a very different approach from the “Making a Museum from Scratch” approach I started with back in 2012.

Originally posted on The Small Museum:

So far, we’ve talked about ethics.


Collections management

Developing a collections management policy; Acquisition and accessioning; Deaccessioning and disposals; Numbering and marking of objects in the collection; Loans condition reports; Collections storage; Handling and moving collections; Photography; Insurance; Public access to collections; Display and exhibition galleries and rooms; Research of collections.

Harriet: fgdfg

George: We were truly liberated by two things: 1) having a very small collection of ten objects, and 2) having those objects be facsimiles of existing things from another institution. The small collection let us not be distracted by having to deal with a giant collections management issue right off the bat. Having a starting position of 200,000 archaeological artifacts, as suggested by Ed Rodley in his 2012 Making a museum from scratch: Part One blogpost just immediately puts you underwater, and perhaps unable to consider questions other than what to do with those dusty, unclassified…

View original 604 more words

The digital and the superorganic

Roof ladder CC BY 2.0 image from Flickr user Georgios Karamanis

Climbing the ladder of complexity

OK, OK… I may have wandered a bit far afield in trying to say the digital realm had more in common with the faerie realm than you might think, but my reasoning and analogizing began rationally enough, and I’ll try to reconstruct it for my sake and yours. I do appreciate all the folks who are starting work on their “digital faerie realm strategies” though. I look forward to reading them!

We tend to try to yoke the digital realm to the physical world as though the two are equal and opposing and discrete; a yin and a yang. “The Digital” as its often bandied about, is an amorphous entity whose geography is imposible to fathom. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a geography, though, nor that its not an entity with its own borders. I think we just make the mistake of trying to describe in terms that aren’t suited to its level of complexity. To understand the dimensions of the digital realm and our attempts to define its bounds, we have climb the ladder of complexity and figure out what to do when it bifurcates while you’re climbing it.

The Superorganic

That last paragraph was a little dense, so let me invoke the early 20th century American anthropoloigst Afred Kroeber and his concept of the superorganic to hopefully explain what I’m trying to grasp. The superorganic is another way of describing –– and understanding –– culture or the socio-cultural system.

Afred Kroeber, 1876-1960.  In addition to everything he accomplished in a long career, he was also Ursula K. Le Guin's father, which might explain something about her ability to write about cultures so fluidly and believably. Image from https://sites.google.com/site/qmccrary/bibliography. Couldn’t find any license info...

Afred Kroeber, 1876-1960.   Image from  https://sites.google.com/site/qmccrary/bibliography. Couldn’t find any license info…

The reason I think Kroeber has something to add to this conversation is that he was attempting to convince his peers that they couldn’t understand culture just by studying human behavior, because culture operated at a level of complexity beyond that of the constituent elements, namely us.

To explain this, he used the image of a ladder of complexity. At the bottom you have the inorganic, the physical universe, and all the atoms of everything. At the next level you have the organic, which comprises all living things. All plants and animals are built out of inorganic elements like carbon. But the organic is more than just the sum of all its inorganic parts. You can’t combine the exact same quantity of hydrogen, oxygen, carbon and other elements that comprise a wombat and get a wombat. And if you separate that wombat into it’s constituent molecules, it will not longer be organic. And no amount of knowledge of the chemistry and physics of how atoms and molecules interact will explain how a wombat behaves, how it powers itself, and reproduces. The organic, seen as a system, operates at a higher level of complexity than the inorganic elements which comprise it. It transcends the inorganic.

At the next level beyond the organic you have what Kroeber called “The Superorganic”, which comprises human culture and society.  Human beings are organic systems. You can study wombats and rats and ameboae and learn things about humans. But humans have developed ways to communicate with each other that are so complex and sophisticated that we have evolved communities and societies which are held together by symbols and behaviors, not biology or genetics. No amount of biological knowledge will explain why societies operates the way they do. Things like trends in fashion just cannot be understood by looking at the people who make and consume fashion. It operates at the superorganic level.

The superorganic is the sea we swim in, and therefore difficult for us to see from our vantage point, since it is everywhere and nowhere in our default frame of reference. It manifests as what Émile Durkheim called “social facts” and defined as any way of acting that could exert influence over an individual, or act as an external constraint on them. Social facts like fashion apply generally over the whole of a given society while having independent existences of their own. Culture itself is akin to a living thing, comprised of human beings, but operating at a higher level of complexity than the organic. There are strong parallels, therefore, between the ways that the inorganic and organic relate, and the ways the organic and the superorganic relate.

Fractal Blues CC BY-NC_ND 2.0 image by Flickr user Fábio Pinheiro

The superorganic and the digital

What both Kroeber and Durkheim warn us against doing is anthropomorphizing human culture, because while it may have a life of its own, that life does not resemble a human life as much as it does an amoeba’s. And in describing the digital realm, I find that all too ofteen we fall back on analogies that operate on a level of complexity below the digital’s, and that’s why so many of these analogies get tired quickly. The digital realm on Earth now comprises not only most of the cultures of the planet, which are themselves constantly at odds with one another in the physical world, but increasingly, machines. There are more things on the Internet than there are people, and these things are constantly talking to one another and acting on each other. And us.

I recognize that you could take the view that the digital realm as it pertains to our experience of it might be described as just another human society, one that is geographically dispersed and embodied differently, via devices. The way most people experience the digital realm may not be that different from the way indigenous peoples exist in both their birth culture and the majority culture of their locality. But it feels different to me. There is something that makes that analogy feel as unhelpful as the digital/physical dialectic.

This digital realm, like the superorganic, operates at a higher level of complexity than the organic. This begs the question of whether the digital is a higher level of complexity than even the superorganic. I’m not sure. At this point, I feel that the digital is at least on a different branch of the ladder of complexity than the superorganic. What the Venn diagram looks like that includes both is beyond me.

NB: I am all too aware that I spent the whole previous post trying to problematize our use of the noun phrase “the digital” as a descriptor, and then spent most of this post using “the superorganic” as a way of understanding how we might more fruitfully look at the digital realm. In my defense, I can only offer up this trivia. Though Kroeber’s famous essay is titled “The Superorganic”, nowhere in the actual text does he use those words. I must assume that he felt as I do and couldn’t bring himself to do it more than once.

BONUS TRIVIA! In addition to everything he accomplished in a long career, Kroeber was also author Ursula K. Le Guin’s father, which might explain something about her ability to write about cultures so fluidly and believably. You’re welcome.