As part of writing the preface, I spent a good deal of time of thinking about how the development of the contemporary web - as tool and ethos - has tracked alongside the development of the contemporary visitor-focused museum. As the web has afforded new communication and social abilities, it's also created new metaphor - myths, in Roland Barthes' term - that shape the way we view and describe the world.
The text that first articulated this for me was actually from 1998, when the web was still in quite a restricted state. It's an address given by Neil Postman, an American cultural theorist and educator, to a group of theologians and religious leaders in Denver. It's called 'Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change' (I suspect this talk was given often, and tailored to this group) and it's about patterns you can see playing out in society with each introduction of a major new piece of technology.
Postman's third Thing is the argument that embedded within every technology is one or more ideas that we may not consciously grasp, but which have massive potential to influence us. He writes:
The third idea, then, is that every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards. This idea is the sum and substance of what the great Catholic prophet, Marshall McLuhan meant when he coined the famous sentence, “The medium is the message.”Writing my preface, I did that thing where you get so off track that you've basically started a PhD thesis, all because you're desperately trying to cram that one perfect quote into your text. I was trying to make an argument about how web / digital development and technology has seeped over from tools to mental frameworks.
Eventually I discarded the quote but kept some of the thinking. But in pulling my train of thought together, I revisited some really influential pieces of writing that illustrate this timeline I was seeing inside my head:
Richard MacManus writing at the launch of the influential tech blog Read Write Web, about what that phrase means in terms of a new era of the web where the tools of publishing are embedded in the medium, and newly available to 'ordinary' people. The metaphor comes from computer science - something that is read / write can be displayed (read) and modified (written to). There is something powerful in that metaphor that speaks to me about the way a generation of experience designers in museums started to create interactive museum displays - not just buttons that people could push, but new techniques to elicit opinion and contributions from the public. Still a really enjoyable short read.
Tim O'Reilly's What is Web 2.0 - the codification of the design patterns and business models he and his collaborators saw as characterising the tech companies who survived then thrived after the 2001 dot-com bubble burst. It is both a group of technical processes and approaches (constant deployment, web as platform) and conceptual approaches ('harnessing the collective intelligence'). So much of the exciting museum work I saw when I first got involved in the web in 2006 at the National Library of New Zealand was enabled and inspired by this moment. It seems almost cheesy now, but holy shit - remember when Web 2.0 was new and changing the world?
Alexis Madrigal, The Weird Thing About Today's Internet, his comeback article for The Atlantic and a reflection on his 10 years covering technology, starting as a writer for Wired in pre-GFC 2007. I'd read this 2017 article sometime around when I was first approached to write this preface, and I pasted this paragraph into the Google doc I fired up to start collecting ideas:
But then in June of 2007, the iPhone came out. Thirteen months later, Apple’s App Store debuted. Suddenly, the most expedient and enjoyable way to do something was often tapping an individual icon on a screen. As smartphones took off, the amount of time that people spent on the truly open web began to dwindle. ... The great cathedrals of that time, nearly impossible projects like Wikipedia that worked and worked well, have all stagnated.I felt that shift in play when I went to the States in 2015 on a Churchill scholarship, visiting museums renowned for their digital leadership. I noted then a move from the big projects of 5-7 years ago, which were driven by those ideas of the open web, universal access, all people contributing knowledge on an equal footing, to the new hot experiences, designed to enrich the physical visit. The 21st century web had driven the first round of innovation, and the smartphone & widespread wifi the second, but I couldn't help but feel there was some evolution in ethos as well (partly, I suspect, from the funders and granters, who might have been starting to question the value of reaching a global audience, and becoming easier to convince on projects that were about value for the exclusive, on-site visitor. However, I also see the natural curiosity of digital leaders playing out in this change: minds adapting to and making use of each tech advance in the museum. Chicken and egg stuff really).
This 20-something year history sits within a wider context of the successive eras of thinking about the social purpose of museums, as articulated by Seph Rodney here. It's not surprising then that I had to spin my wheels through about three days of writing what was basically the outline of a thesis before I could relinquish enough of my treasured quotes and observations to get down to the guts of the piece. I'm not going to tell you how the preface ends, because that will give it all away. But I'm really looking forward to sharing that book with you.