Category Archives: MCN

Travels in November

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Contrails. CC BY-SA 3.0 image by Wikimedia Commons user Cp9asngf

November is going to be action packed! I’m not really ready for it, but c’est la vie. I’ll be doing a whirlwind tour of North America and Europe, going to three different conferences, and finally, finally, finally going to see the Louisiana Museum and learning more about how the amazing Louisiana Channel runs.

Oct 31-Nov 4,New Orleans
Museum Computer Network Conference 2016
http://conference.mcn.edu/2016/attend.cfm

This year, Bruce Wyman, Kate Haley Goldman, and I are repeating our “Experiencing the Visitor Experience” workshop on the 1st.  The inimitable Suse Cairns and I are also hosting an informal book club to discuss “Post-Critical Museology”. Time and place TBD, so check Twitter for updates. Other than that, I’m free as a bird and looking forward to attending sessions!

Nov 10, Copenhagen
Louisiana Museum
http://www.louisiana.dk/

I’m visiting the Louisiana Museum and talk to the folks at the Louisiana Channel before heading across the bridge to Malmö attend Alibis for Interaction.

Nov 11, Malmö
Alibis for Interaction 2016
http://www.alibisforinteraction.se/

Nordic LARPing anyone? Alibis for Interaction is a one-day masterclass on the craft of designing human interaction, participation and narrative experiences. Because participation can be hard. Talking to strangers is hard. Receiving attention is hard. Doing new things is hard, Even when whatever you’re being invited to do looks fun or really important issue. I’ll be doing research for a potential exhibition on play and contemporary art, and shooting some run-n-gun interviews.

Nov 12-13
Up in the air. There’s tons to see in Copenhagen. Suggestions?

Nov 13-16, Köln
Clash of Realities 2016
http://www.clashofrealities.com/2016/

At Clash of Realities, experts from the academy, science and research, economics, politics and the game industry will discuss pressing questions concerning the artistic design, technological development, and social perception of digital games, as well as the spreading of games literacy. I’ll be doing more research for a potential exhibition on play and contemporary art, and shooting more formal interviews with our intrepid videographer, Mr. Chip Van Dyke.

So if you’re in New Orleans, Copenhagen, Malmö, or Köln, hit me up and we’ll have coffee or a drink! DMing me on Twitter is probably the safest bet, email also works.

That Which Is Lost

One of the follow up conversations I had at MCN2015 was with Jeff Inscho about our Content session. It was a wide-ranging one, touching on repositories, the Museum full stack, and more. In my notes, I wrote the quote “Content – That Which is Lost” which was one of the definitions that came out of our session. It’s stuck with me since.

The “digital dark age” is a thing that lots of important people are worrying about.

Google boss warns of ‘forgotten century’ with email and photos at risk

Will Future Historians Consider These Days The Digital Dark Ages?

The digital black hole: will it delete your memories?

You get the idea. It’s a problem. I’ve been thinking a lot about digital ecosystems in museums, and how good they are at some things while being really terrible at others. Ironically, the thing that most digital ecosystems suck at most is preservation, followed closely by findability. This is a huge problem, one that will hobble not only us, but our successors and the posterity we supposedly hope to enrich by saving and interpreting all this stuff we steward. Here’s an illustrative example of what I’m talking about:

 

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New England Habitats

One of the last exhibitions I worked on at the Museum of Science was a renovation project. The New England Habitats hall is a diorama hall built in phases from the 1950s to the early 1960s. Some of the old-timers I worked with when I first started there in the ‘80s had worked on creating them, and they remain a central, unchanging feature of the museum. They were reinterpreted in the early ‘90s by the illustrious Betty Davidson, as part of her seminal research on making accessible, multisensory exhibits. The book that resulted, New Dimensions for Traditional Dioramas, is still relevant.  By 2010, they were in need of another renovation, and I was charged with updating the content and exhibits. My first job was to understand what the original creators had been trying to do and how Betty et al had tried to modernize it. So, off to the Exhibits archives I went looking for what I could find.

For the ’90s renovation, that consisted mainly of Betty’s personal project file, some 3.5in floppies, and a couple of Syquest or Bernoulli cartridges that probably held large (for the time) graphics files. It was pretty skimpy, and missing all the email correspondence aside from those Betty printed out for some reason. A tremendous amount of sleuthing and DIY computer forensics allowed me to extract label copy from old Word and Pagemaker files.

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New England Habitats 

For the original construction, back in the paper days, there were bulging file folders for each diorama, sometimes multiple folders (“Deer diorama” AND “Whitetail Deer”) with probably a couple of linear feet of files which covered everything: meeting notes, internal memos (some pretty intense), incoming and outgoing correspondence, plans, drafts of labels with edits. Along the way, I discovered things that had been lost over the years, like the fact that the dioramas were modeled on real locations in New England, not idealized environments as was more typical of the period. The photo research was all there, in piles of curling B&W prints. I could tell you exactly how much it cost to procure the beavers for the beaver diorama, because the trapper’s bill was there, complete with a description of how he dynamited their dam to get them and the lucky bonus that one of the beavers was pregnant, so the Museum got some bonus specimens. Different times. There was also the account of the poor staff member who had to drive a cooler full of rapidly thawing frozen beavers corpses from Vermont to the taxidermist’s studio in New York on one of the hottest days of the year that was obviously written solely for internal use. I could smell cigarette smoke clinging to papers that had sat on desks for too long. Everybody smoked then. A little more digging turned up originals of the transparencies used in the backlit labels, and other goodies from the stat camera. It was a treasure trove that let me climb inside my predecessors’ minds and understand what they were trying to do.

 

In the end, I knew more about what happened sixty years ago than what happened less than twenty years ago. And it was all because we hadn’t figured out how to save digital information in a way that made it findable and searchable, or anywhere near as easy to use as a manilla folder full of papers. This is not a problem exclusive to the MOS. When I first started at PEM and was snooping around to see what kind of 18th century firearms we had (as one does) I rapidly found out that the CMS’s records were pretty sparse in some areas, and if I really wanted to find out about older parts of the collection I should consult the card catalogue. The card catalogue. And I know that versions of this scenario play out at cultural organizations all over.

We have lost control of our stuff

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Look familiar?  “Messy Desktop” CC-BY-NC 2.0 image by Flickr user Dean Shareski

The proliferation of digital platforms and information has outpaced our ability to corral it and make it usefully findable. In place of the old hanging folder, a container that could hold anything you could cram into it, we now have information scattered across devices and platforms, mostly uninterchangeable and unsearchable. As a test case, I looked at a typical week’s worth of digital content and platforms I interacted with last week, and it consisted of:

  • Emails, chats (corporate Gmail account)
  • Google calendar events
  • Texts (personal phone)
  • Twitter (tweets, and DMs)
  • MS Office docs (.doc, .docx, .xls, .xlsx, .ppt, .pptx)
  • Google docs & sheets
  • PDFs
  • Video (various formats and FCP and AE projects)
  • Audio files (.mp3, .wav, .aiff)
  • Corporate network (five different servers, with varying access permissions)
  • Basecamp messages, tasks, calendars (some turned into email, some not)
  • Slack notifications
  • Image files (All over the map: mostly .jpgs, many taken on the phone and uploaded to Dropbox, then spread across emails, work computer directories, network directories, Basecamp, and SM.
  • Other SM content (Instagram posts, FB updates, and to a lesser extent LinkedIn and Foursquare)

In other words, it’s a mess. And I’ve already made clear my feeling about keyword searching in a previous post, so don’t get me started.

Please note that I am not advocating that we forsake digital technologies and return to paper. Are we clear on that? Good. Let’s move on…

What might we do?

The obvious solution is a repository, the museum equivalent of the “single source of truth” that software companies enshrine. But those sources only cover the codebase. If you were a future archaeologist trying to understand how 21st century software companies operated, you’d not find correspondence or financials in the repo. So how to create a digital version of the hanging folder that is as useful and possesses a generous enough interface to allow mere mortals to query it and find gold? That is a big question. Anybody out there having success?

MCN 2015: Bottling the Magic

I’m finally far enough away from the event to try to make sense of my experience of the 48th Museum Computer Network conference in Minneapolis. The tl:dr version is “Holy shit! What a great time!” (pardon the language). It was an exhausting week, full of so many deeply thoughtful presentations and smart smart people that I felt a bit like a hamster on a wheel, trying to make sure I got to at least say “Hello!” to all the people I wanted to talk to or meet. I lost my voice for almost a week afterwards.

Hospitality

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I’ve never experienced a city so welcoming as the Twin Cities. When we were visiting in March trying to sort of out the conference program, we were continually impressed with the collegial generosity of our peers. People bent over backwards to help us, to the extent that we had more offers for venues for evening events than we had nights available to have events. Things that were usually issues, like transport, turned into unexpected gifts like the Minnesota Transportation Museum sending us antique busses from their collection to shuttle attendees back and forth to our evening events. The afternoon workshop that Bruce Wyman, Kate Haley-Goldman, and I ran at Science Museum of Minnesota, was scheduled to conclude with a roundtable discussion with SMM staff about their experience design process. Instead of offering us a couple of volunteers, they turned out their offices and brought over a dozen senior staff to the table to share their philosophy and hear what we had to say about our experiences in the galleries. Way to stay classy, SMM. MIA staff volunteered in large numbers to help ensure the conference ran smoothly. In addition to hosting the major evening event, MIA’s director, Kaywin Feldman, was part of two sessions to discuss Agile leadership and 21st century business models for museums. The Twin Cities were engaged!

The Importance of Culture

Ask anyone who’s been to MCN what makes it different than other conferences, and I’d wager that you’ll get answers that have a lot do with the community being friendly and welcoming. That is because of the people who attend, but it’s also the product of a lot of thought and work on the part of MCN. Culture is important and MCN does a great job of both signaling what their culture is, and making it easy to take part. This year, a new Friendly Space policy was announced that covered the whole conference, and agreeing to abide by it was part of the registration process. The conference organizers and MCN Board were all briefed on how to respond if something came to their attention. This wasn’t in response to an unpleasant event, but a proactive step, and a first in the museum sector, to my knowledge. And it shows a level of care and attention that several people commented on to me during the conference. People like to feel like they’re being looked after.

The crowd at the Pourhouse was great!

The crowd at the Pourhouse was great!

I won’t go into too many details about Ignite, other than to say it ruled, because you can watch them yourselves. Here’s the list. There is no better way to kick off a conference than a high-energy, rapid-fire event like Ignite. Kate Haley Goldman described it as “culture norming” and I think it’s an apt description. If you’re a first timer trying to understand what you’ve gotten yourself into by coming to MCN, then Ignite will show you. MCN’s vision of itself as “a welcoming and candid community of professionals passionate about empowering museums to address challenges and embrace opportunities within the evolving digital landscape” is really evident during the Ignite talks. Go watch.

Bravery and Action

A part of that passion was a strong desire to address social justice issues. There seemed to be a real undercurrent of bravery at the conference. People were putting themselves out there in necessary, uncomfortable ways. The list of people asking hard questions and speaking their truths to power included (but is by no means limited to) Nikhil Trivedi’s and Sina Bahram’s Ignite talks, Adrianne Russell and Porchia Moore’s session on Making the Invisible Visible: Museums & Cultural Agency, and Liz Filardi’s, Brinker Ferguson’s, and Emily Lyle-Painter’s homegrown #MuseWomen mentorship program.  These acts took real guts and their willingness to call out their community (us) to do more and do it better deserves both our praise and action. Respect.

Empathy and Action

Liz Ogbu

Liz Ogbu

I’m not usually a fan of conference keynotes, and had in fact spoken out in favor of ditching the keynote at MCN 2016, only the day before Liz Ogbu got up to talk to us about her work as an architect and designer whose career is built around creating social impact through design. Again, you can watch it for yourselves, so I won’t bore you with details, other than a few tidbits. Her discussion of empathy, how it differs from sympathy, and how vital it is to any kind of work with a social dimension really struck home to me. Her ability to couple deep, thoughtful deliberate design with real, specific outcomes (meaning she not only talks about stuff, but actually does stuff and makes things that people can use) was really inspiring. Check it out. It’s an hour you won’t regret.

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Digital and I

Nice photo of my Ignite talk by Miranda Kerr.

Nice photo of my Ignite talk by Miranda Kerr.

I spent a lot of the conference proper talking about buzzwords. My Ignite talk, available here, was all about the word “digital” and all the ways it gets (mis)used. The one session I presented at was an all-star roundup about buzzwords organized by Jennifer Foley of Cleveland Museum of Art, which included Mr. Jeff Inscho of the Warhol and me. We took on three big buzzwords; engagement, content, and digital, and how they are used and whether they might not be replaced in certain contexts. It was a raucous, energetic event where we broke into groups and took turns trying to define these three terms. The results can be found here for digital, content, and engagement. Good times…

See all y’all in New Orleans next year! #MCN2016!

The MCN2015 Program Co-chairs: Suse

The MCN2015 Program Co-chairs: Suse Cairns, Morgan Holzer, and some guy

Books!

Back in the beginning of 2014, Rob Stein, Suse Cairns, and I had a series of conversations about blogging, conference presentations, the future, and other things I’m forgetting. The outcome of those talks was an online publishing experiment we decided to call CODE | WORDS. Our dream was pretty straightforward. Could we improve on the models of online and offline discourse we all engaged in? Was there some better way to generate substantive discourse that was better than the blog model of long comment chains, and was faster and more collaborative than the traditional “go sit down in silence and write your article” model of publishing?

You can go to Medium and read the results for yourself. We didn’t hit all our goals, but we did help give birth to thought-provoking essays that might not have been written otherwise. It’s some of the work I’m most proud of in my career. And, as a bonus, one of our hopes – that working in the open would provide greater benefit to the field than other methods – has borne fruit.

Reprogram: We’re big in Brazil!

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Luis Mendes, one of the core CODE | WORDS conspirators and one of the most consistent cheerleaders during the long slog to get the essays published, has been busy in his native Brazil to collect and publish new thinking about museums. To that end, he started a program called Reprogram, which aims to investigate “the changes in museums around the world from a collection of essays, articles and lectures transcripts of some of the most influential museum thinkers of our time. It is a collaborative effort of shared content and publishing made possible by crowdfunding.” He crowdfunded the publication of the first volume of the series, Communication, branding and culture in a new era of museums, available in Portuguese and English, and used many of the CODE | WORDS essays in the second volume, Technology, innovation and culture in a new era of museums. It’s quite humbling to share the contents page with people like Cory Doctorow, Nina Simon, Jane Finnis, Koven Smith, and other great practitioners. Both PDFs are worth the download.

CODE | WORDS: the book!

CW_3Drendered_grande-2While Luis was busy in Brazil, we approached publishers with CODE | WORDS and found in MuseumsEtc a kindred spirit in Graeme Farnell. Despite the questions, concerns, and requirements we threw at him, he never ceased to be an enthusiastic partner. The result is a Creative Commons licensed book, that contains the original essays, with some revised essays, a forward by Seb Chan, and more! I was glad for the chance to rewrite my essay, which I felt never quite got where I wanted it to go. That’s a bonus benefit of the physical book, and speaking of benefits, we will soon have a special ordering link that will send part of the proceeds of book purchases to the Museum Computer Network Scholarship fund. How cool is that? When I get the URL, I’ll post the link!

And there’s more CODE | WORDS news coming, but that’ll have to be a post of its own.

#MCN2015 recap: What does ‘digital’ mean to you?

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MCN2015 was incredible. One of those life-changing, affirming, provoking sorts of days-long affairs that left me hoarse for a week after. No, really. I talked so much in Minneapolis I lost my voice for several days. There’s much unpacking to do, but first I have a promise to fulfill…

Buzzwords: Content, Digital, Engagement
Jennifer Foley, Director of Interpretation, Cleveland Museum of Art, Jeffrey Inscho, Innovation Studio, Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, and I ran a session called “‘Content’ and its discontents” which investigated questions and issues around the language we use when communicating our work. The panel also examined why talking through the semantics of what we do is more than just semantics, but has real impact on the meaningful subject matter museums create. Specifically, we looked at three rampant buzzwords; content, engagement, and digital.

Given my obvious fixation on the word “digital”, I led the breakouts on coming up with answers to the question, “What does ‘digital’ mean to you?” The 40-odd museum professionals at the session generated a ton of answers and engendered some great conversation. The results covered several sheets of butcher’s paper, and we promised we’d get them typed up and posted for participants to see.

The digital list in process, courtesy of Alli Burness via Twitter

Thanks to my intern, the marvelous Meike Gourley, the ‘digital’ sheets are transcribed and legible. It’s also worth looking at the results of Jeff’s “content” group, and Jennifer’s “engagement” group, to see how differently the three words resonated with people who use them all the time. Discussion follows the list below.

Opposing Binaries
Accessible / Inaccessible
elitist / Populist
invisible / displayable
proprietary / shareable
Superficial / authentic
un/ sustainable
“The Future” / “Legacy”
Permanent/ Temporary
Isolating / Connected
impossibly small / large
$ EXPENSIVE $ / AFFORDABLE
Schrödinger’s cat
Human – made / automatically

Audiences
only for the KIDS
millenial
Community Building
Geek/Popular
democratic
narcissistic and selfish
impersonal
white male
global
trendy

Pejoratives
needs a device
addictive
OVERWHELMING
seductive and shiny
Inorganic
“when you don’t know what else to call it”
DIGITAL (not real)
DISTRACTING
ARTIFICIAL
not real
confusing
anonymous
exposing/ vulnerable
not for a museum
disposable
fleeting
outdated
confusing (still)
fad
scary
hard
loud
Trivial
non-touchable
intangible
things that can break
new-fangled

Complimentary
open
Expansive
Multisensory
Mutable / Mute-able
immediate
useful
the sea we swim in
magic
discoverable
forever changing
copiable
fluid
evergreen
collaborative
interdisciplinary
immersive
Adoptable
Adaptable
Dynamic
Engaging Content
required
modern
infinite
searchable
augmented
interesting
easier to implement
24/7
HYBRID

Descriptive
binary
Organized, a system
Networked
Downloadable
Portable
mobile
electronic
interactive
virtual
Intangible
multimedia
Screenbased
online
it is a medium
platform
tool
(The internet)
i Pads and screens
website
pictures
computer environment
video and rich media
software
infrastructure

Other definitions
separate
not printed
the last thing
duplicating print
anything on a computer
Anything technological

So what does it mean?

Well, a lot, it seems! It was fascinating to see how schizophrenic and polarizing the answers to the question were. The number of answers that contradicted other answers is pretty telling. It will be interesting to see how it stacks up against “content” and “engagement”.

What things strike you about this list?

UPDATE: Here’s Jennifer’s take on the session and “engagement”. Go read it!

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.

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.