this is aaronland

continuous partial mythologies

The myth of continuity

Part one

Earlier this week, I was part of the The Mythologies of Museums panel at MCN 2021, alongside Susan Chun, Sherri Wasserman and Bruce Wyman. The panel was pitched as a need to understand our shared mythologies about museums, practical examples of how we can do things differently, and the ripple effect across the organization for our most basic decisions. I was asked to speak to this idea in the context of digital technologies in museums. These are the notes I wrote for the panel and used as a kind of opening statement.

I'd like to talk about the myth of continuity, specifically the myth of achieving continuity in our endeavours. In order to talk about this it is necessary to talk about platforms as vehicles of distribution and of the very important distinction between the web and the larger internet, even though the two are often understood as being the same thing.

There is a reason that companies like Facebook and Snap are talking about virtual, augmented and mixed realities: Simply put they are trying to create and control a new means of distribution that is not a mobile phone. They are doing this because there are exactly two mobile computing platforms and they are the choke point for enabling or disabling features, functionality and revenue.

It is important to understand the web, the thing that Tim Berners-Lee created and released unencumbered of any restrictions in the early 1990s, in this light. The web is simply a set of protocols that sit on top of the internet that define the means by which any two people, one with a server and the other with a client, can exchange documents. That's basically the sum total of the web and that simplicity, coupled with absence of control by any one platform vendor, is what makes it so important.

The web does not do everything, it is not a magic pony. What it does do, however, is enable two things: One, the ability to project an idea beyond the range of any one individual's voice, beyond the limitations imposed by physical space and other geographies. Two, it allows for the asynchronous recall of those ideas outside the determination of someone else's schedule or editorial bent.

It's not hard to see why this should be important to the cultural heritage sector. One only has to remember, or imagine, the world that preceded the web. It was a world where access to and awareness of our collections was bounded by geography, the constraints of book publishing and the occasional documentary film. The exhibition catalog was the unit of currency in the cultural heritage sector. A bookshelf of catalogs was the only proof of the arc of an institution's history and work.

In 2021, the myth of continuity suggests this is still largely the case.

The promise of the web, of the internet as a whole but specifically the web because of its effects on the power dynamics of distribution, was not only that we could reach an audience outside of geography but that it could bridge all those exhibition catalogs, and all the materials used to create those catalogs. That bridge would create first a network, a web, of ideas and relationships greater than the sum of its parts and, second, serve as the building blocks for new ways of understanding and interpreting our collections. It would do so not absent of economics but absent the economics of someone else's business model which rarely, if ever, align with the goals of the cultural heritage sector.

That hasn't happened because we are unable or unwilling to believe that we can and should control the means to make these things possible. We are still largely unable to break free of the "fire and forget" model of developing exhibitions and exhibition catalogs. We are largely unable to retain the staff and the institutional knowledge necessary to make any given digital project possible beyond its launch.

Exascerbating this problem is the belief that digital infrastructure is more like a book than, say, a garden. That, within the limits of aging, it can simply sit unattended on a shelf and be revisited only by brushing off any accumulated dust. Just to be clear about something: I love books. Books are amazing. But a field guide of plants is not the same thing as a living, breathing garden and no one pretends that a garden left unattended will flourish.

Exascerbating that problem is the belief that the only way to address these digital and technological short-comings is to adopt the methodologies of the private sector ignoring the simple fact that the private sectors operates at a scale of staffing the cultural heritage sector is unlikely to ever enjoy, at least not in our lifetime. So we compound the problem of staffing, and more specifically of retention, by adopting means and methods designed to tackle a problem we'll never have.

Part two

This is the long-form version of some of the things that I said when the panel moved to an open conversation.

Until recently, the web was still more exciting than not. This fact intersected with the cultural heritage sector's need or desire to be associated with cool, new technologies. It has been a marriage of convenience where, almost by happenstance, the hot new technology (the web) aligned with the values and the mission the sector claims as its own. At the end of 2021, the web is seen by many as boring and there is a lot of effort being focused on different forms of augmented reality environments and immersive experiences. It is, some people say, the future of museums. Perhaps it is, or can be, but there are a couple of issues worth addressing before the cultural heritage sector begins this new adventure.

The first is that not even Facebook, which is hiring literally tens of thousands of engineers to build these environments, thinks the ideas they are imagining are within reach right now. So not only are they willing to hire large teams dedicated to an ambitious betting-on-the-future project they are committing to sustaining those teams for years to come. Museums and libraries, on the other hand, can still barely keep their own websites running for more than five or ten years before they are rebuilt from scratch as part of whatever new initiative is being advanced by the organization.

In 2018, at a the Conference on Mobile Position Awareness Systems and Solutions, I talked about this phenomenon by saying ...that Disney is to the museum sector what Google is to the technology sector.

What I mean to say is that using Disney as a frame of reference when discussing what is possible in the museum space in 2018 is an unhelpful distraction. Saying "But Disney does it..." has become the trickle-down economic theory of technology development in the museum sector.

It also does a real disservice to the genuinely hard work these companies have done and continue to accomplish. Google and Disney exist in universes of their own creation, complete with air that we don't breathe, but it is important to recognize that they have (mostly) earned it.

It is important to recognize that there is a network effect in each of their individual efforts and that those efforts play themselves out over multiple projects often spanning years and many failures. The museum sector, both individually and collectively, remains unable or unwilling to make those kinds of investments or to take equivalent risks and the results are predictably un-Disney-esque.

I wish the museum sector would endeavour to create Disney-scale infrastructures and tooling in service of cultural heritage. Until it does though maybe we can just admit that talking about Disney does nothing to address the needs and concerns we face on a day-to-day basis?

The second issue that we, operating in the not-for-profit or notionally not-entirely-for-profit sector, need to address is whether or not we are responsible for considering the consequence of our participation in the technologies we choose to embrace. We go where the eyeballs are, is the excuse we make for engaging on and with platforms whose motivations and behaviours are increasingly difficult to reconcile with anything other than short-term, profit-driven decisions that benefit the few to the cost of the many.

These same platforms are now embarking on efforts to replace the common playing field they were forced to operate on, the web, with environments that they control from end to end. Again, the dilemma that companies like Facebook face being forced to operate within Apple or Google's mobile platforms is instructive. It has always been in Apple's interest to preference native applications over equivalent web-based applications. The former ensures that the device itself is a means of control and so Facebook, being forced to develop and promote native applications, is always subject to someone else's decisions whether they are made out of negligence or malice.

What we are witnessing now is a concerted effort, by a number of different actors, to replace the dominant means of enforcing that control. It remains to be seen whether it will happen any time soon and it remains to be seen whether that control will be used merely to extract new profits or to influence behaviour, assuming their is any difference between those two things anymore.

Absent from all of these discussions is anything like the vision that Tim Berners Lee espoused for the web as an open platform, free of licensing constraints. One that was simple enough to guarantee it could be implemented and operated with limited resources. When we talk about virtual worlds we are not only talking about walled gardens governed by the whim and folly of shareholder value. We are also talking about infrastructures that only a few enterprises are in a position to operate.

It is true that cultural heritage institutions should go where the people are in order to better raise awareness of and share our collections. At least in principle. At some point, though, we need to ask ourselves whether participating with platforms whose benefits, however real and tangible they may be, are increasingly being dwarfed by their consequences is something that undermines our mission as civic-minded organizations for the common good.

Part three

Almost none of what follows made it in to the panel. We were asked to think about meaningful suggestions of things people might do to address the questions we'd been talking about. What follows is what I would have liked to say if we'd had more time.

Define what digital means

Define what digital means for your organization. My own definition of digital is expansive and that is why I put so much weight on the value and importance of the web. My definition doesn't need to be your definition but we owe it to ourselves, and to our colleagues, to articulate what we mean when we talk about digital. For too long important differences in that understanding have been lumped together under the same umbrella term and it is one of the reasons the sector has difficulty implementing any of its goals.

Make the web your baseline

Make the web your baseline, in particular a web of documents and links rather than one of interactions or transactions or experiences. This is the profoundly boring web but that is the point. It is the web that, structurally, has a better guarantee of outlasting the machinations of third-party vendors. In the time between the panel at MCN and this blog post Google has updated its Chrome browser engine to make it possible to prevent viewing the source of any given web page violating one of the core principles, what Tim Bray has called the View Source lesson, of the web.

Adding the ability to block View Source is antithetical to what the web used to stand for. It is profoundly fucking evil, and everyone responsible should be ashamed. I don't care how many times you say the word "enterprise" as an excuse for your decision.


I have joked nervously that one day we would all have to start compiling our own browsers from source again to account for nonsense like Google's changes. I have always hoped I was being paranoid. Maybe, maybe not. It does serve to make my point that we should remember that what the made the web different, what distinguished it from the past, was not a lot of fancy interactivity but the ability for common resources (text and images, even video) to hold hands across the internet using a model so simple that it could be built with only modest effort.

No one can pretend that web browsers are simple anymore, but that's not really my point. Neither is it that we should do away with all the complex and sophisticated interactivity we've developed over the years. I am not suggesting that we return to the web of the mid-1990s with its grey backgrounds and blue and purple links. I am suggesting however that we ensure that web is our guaranteed failure scenario, should it ever be necessary, and that we layer everything on top of it.

This is as much about safe-guarding against other people's browser decisions as it is giving the cultural heritage sector the freedom to engage with the walled gardens of platform vendors, without that participation turning in to a black hole from which it is impossible to escape.

I am suggesting that we evaluate all of our technological choices through a lens that forces us to unravel and understand layers and layers of abstractions and conveniences so that we preserve the technological, conceptual and economic freedom that the web made possible.

Publish data first

Publish data first, and then build on top of it. I spoke about this, at Museums and the Web 2019, in the context of the work SFO Museum is doing with its websites:

Historically the model for most digital or web-based initiatives has been to first export data from an internal collections management system. Second, that data is massaged in to an intermediate form for use by the project at hand and then third, exported again in to a typically bespoke machine-readable format.

We have changed the order of things to publish the open data representation first and then, from there, to build our own websites and services on top of that.

Everything I've described so far has been built using the same raw materials that we've made available for you to do something with. This introduces a non-zero cost in the build process for the public-facing museum efforts but we believe it's worth the cost.

First of all we want other people to build new interfaces and new services, new "experiences" even, on top of our collection so this is a way to keep ourselves honest. If we can't build something with this stuff why should we imagine you will?

Second, we want to ensure that the data we release and the manner in which it is published, is actually robust and flexible enough to engender a variety of interfaces and uses because we need that variety. It is important to the museum because I don't believe there is, or should be, only one master narrative in to the collection.

In many ways this is just the actual implementation of everything I described in the last section. This is the boring web of documents and links. It is the boring web that makes all the other experiences and interactions possible.

Small focused tools.

Make the extra effort, whenever possible, to extract those pieces in the bespoke tools written by and for an organization in to smaller pieces that can be shared with others. It's hard to overstate how important this is for the cultural heritage sector, at least in the near-term. The sector is still a long ways from finding any kind of meaningful solutions to the problems of first hiring and then retaining the staff who can build and maintain its digital systems. Until that problem is resolved every institution is going to be operating with too few people, doing too many different things. They will be developing infrastructures and scaffoldings that are purpose-fit to the realities of their situation, often cutting corners out of necessity.

None of these things can or will be designed from first principles or a conceptual framework that supports anything but the institution where they were built. The staffing realities of the cultural heritage sector dictate that simple, unfortunate reality. That doesn't mean we can't or shouldn't share resources, though. It simply means we need to think differently about how and what we share. We need to develop the practice of thinking about our tools as layers of components where those components that can be shared are simple enough for someone at a different instituion, someone who is just as busy and distracted as you are, to quickly understand what something does or doesn't do.

The emphasis here is on quickly because the reality is that other people will be looking at whatever you've shared over lunch or on the train going home. The emphasis needs to be on quickly because the ultimate goal is to have something that can be understood with sufficient ease that it can be filed away to be remembered at some later date when there is a need to address a specific problem. If the goal is to build a common kit of parts that can be re-used across the cultural heritage sector the first step is to make awareness of those tools, and their conceptual boundaries, a practical and tangible reality.

I've been trying to do this, and writing about it, with the toolchain we're building at SFO Museum.

Write about it.

Write about it, whatever it is, and publish it on the web for the future to find. In the same way that we need small focused tools the sector needs to tell itself the stories, good and bad, of its work. The sector needs to demonstrate to itself, and to its broader audiences, that there is proof of life in its work.

Be generous with your thoughts have confidence that someone will find value in your work, whatever it is. Share your experience with the understanding that the value in what you are doing is in the act of sharing itself. The measure need not be attracting eyeballs but in participating and giving back to the common resource that the web can be.

If you have ever benefited from something someone else has shared online it stands to reason that someone else, in turn, will benefit from what you have to share. Weeks or months, years even, may pass before someone else finds what you've written but it's important to understand: This is what separates the web from what came before it.

The web has made it possible, both technologically and economically, to allow thoughts and ideas to survive the long-term. The web is the means by which an idea outlasts the reluctance of the present. It is one way that we might realize the myth of continuity.