I just returned from a lunch in which I decried a local news station’s tendency to call their weather forecast a “futurecast,” when the future is (in my mind) kind of assumed in the definition of the word “forecast.”

But that said, the word keeps popping into my head as I read texts for the New Media Seminar.  This week was the chapter on ”Learning Webs,” from Ivan Illich’s 1971 book, Deschooling Society.  I have a problem with Illich’s fundamental critique as I understand it of institutionalized education.  ”Invariably,” he writes, “it shapes the consumer who values institutional commodities above the nonprofessional ministration of a neighbor.”

Everywhere the hidden curriculum of schooling initiates the citizen to the myth that bureaucracies guided by scientific knowledge are efficient and benevolent. Everywhere this same curriculum instills in the pupil the myth that increased production will”" provide a better life. And everywhere it develops the habit of self-defeating consumption of services and alienating production, the tolerance for institutional dependence, and the recognition of institutional rankings. The hidden curriculum of school does all this in spite of contrary efforts undertaken by teachers and no matter what ideology prevails.

In other words, schools are fundamentally alike in all countries, be they fascist, democratic or socialist, big or small, rich or poor. This identity of the school system forces us to recognize the profound world-wide identity of myth, mode of production, and method of social control, despite the great variety of mythologies in which the myth finds expression.

I personally don’t have such a bleak view of institutionalized education, but maybe that’s because I’m a product of it and therefore can’t step outside of my institutionally-shaped perspective.

However, I do appreciate some of his suggestions of ways to deal with what he sees as the problem, and some of that involves some nice futurecasting on his part about approaches that are now coming (back?) into vogue.

He wants self-directed education instead of education conducted at the behest of institutionally certified teachers.  His four “approaches which enable the student to gain access to any educational resource which may help him to define and achieve his own goals” are:

1. Reference Services to Educational Objects-which facilitate access to things or processes used for formal learning. Some of these things can be reserved for this purpose, stored in libraries, rental agencies, laboratories, and showrooms like museums and theaters; others can be in daily use in factories, airports, or on farms, but made available to students as apprentices or on off hours.

2. Skill Exchanges–which permit persons to list their skills, the conditions under which they are willing to serve as models for others who want to learn these skills, and the addresses at which they can be reached.

3. Peer-Matching–a communications network which permits persons to describe the learning activity in which they wish to engage, in the hope of finding a partner for the inquiry.

4. Reference Services to Educators-at-Large–who can be listed in a directory giving the addresses and self-descriptions of professionals, paraprofessionals, and free-lancers, along with conditions of access to their services. Such educators, as we will see, could be chosen by polling or consulting their former clients.

I dig autodidacticism.  I appreciate the fact that Illich recognizes that pure autodidacticism is really unlikely–that it’s helpful to turn to experts (and peers) for guidance.

But I was particularly struck in all this by some points he made while discussing approach #1 above, on the need to facilitate access to things used for formal learning.  Expanding on the point summarized above, he wrote:

In a city opened up to people, teaching materials which are now locked up in store-rooms and laboratories could be dispersed into independently operated storefront depots which children and adults could visit without the danger of being run over.

If the goals of learning were no longer dominated by schools and schoolteachers, the market for learners would be much more various and the definition of “educational artifacts” would be less restrictive. There could be tool shops, libraries, laboratories, and gaming rooms. Photo labs and offset presses would allow neighborhood newspapers to flourish. Some storefront learning centers could contain viewing booths for closed-circuit television, others could feature office equipment for use and for repair. The jukebox or the record player would be commonplace, with some specializing in classical music, others in international folk tunes, others in jazz. Film clubs would compete with each other and with commercial television. Museum outlets could be networks for circulating exhibits of works of art, both old and new, originals and reproductions, perhaps administered by the various metropolitan museums.

So, aren’t those pretty much makerspaces, hackerspaces, community workshops, and the like?  Books like Martinez & Stager’s Invent to Learn or Chris Anderson’s Makers: the New Industrial Revolution describe how just such spaces can affect (and are affecting) schools and learning.

Once again I’m struck by the way thinkers in the non-digital past are describing systems that are now being created.  It happened with Vannevar Bush and the Memex.  It happened with Doug Engelbart and, well, almost everything.  And here–in a small way, to be sure, and not unique to him–it’s happening with Ivan Illich.

Pretty cool.

Now, as an aside, I was  further struck by Illich’s comments immediately following my last quotation above:

The professional personnel needed for this network would be much more like custodians, museum guides, or reference librarians than like teachers. From the corner biology store, they could refer their clients to the shell collection in the museum or indicate the next showing of biology videotapes in a certain viewing booth. They could furnish guides for pest control, diet, and other kinds of preventive medicine. They could refer those who needed advice to “elders” who could provide it.

I’ve got a riff on the whole notion that librarians and others of our ilk have a lot in common with park and museum guides–that, for instance, we could very much adapt Freeman Tilden’s Six Principles of Interpretation–but that’s a post for another day soon.

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I’m hereby finally pulling this blog off the bookshelf and whacking it on my leg a couple of times to get the dust off of it.  Having moved to a new and highly cool job at a new and highly cool institution a few months ago, I’m now taking part in the Gardner Campbell-led New Media Faculty-Staff development seminar.

Part of our contribution to the cause entails weekly blogging, and this I now return to doing with great pleasure.  Not only because it helps me organize my thoughts on the fascinating reading we’re doing for the seminar, but because blogging is a habit to which I want to return, now that I’m bearing responsibility for a new library unit doing some really engaging stuff.

In any case, this week is only a couple of quick hitters:

The first is inspired by some conversation we had in the first couple of seminar sessions in which we engaged with themes emerging from such seminal new media texts as Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” (1945), Norbert Wiener’s “Men, Machines, and the World About” (1954), and J. C. R. Licklider, “Man-Computer Symbiosis” (1960).

We talked about the extent to which the machine is simply an faster automator of processes that humans are already undertaking or whether it will eventually be sophisticated enough to create art (leaving aside the question of whether that would be “true” art or simply the resemblance of art) or emote.

So I was entertained to run across a story at Huffington Post about the disappointment among the twitter faithful upon learning that the handle @Horse_ebooks was NOT a bot, when it was thought to be one:

For years, @Horse_ebook’s over 200,000 avid followers had been convinced its sometimes poetic, often nonsensical, frequently hilarious tweets had been the musings of a spambot created to elude Twitter’s spam detectors and peddle books about horses. There was something captivating about an algorithm that seemed so gifted at capturing the conundrums of our age. (“Everything happens so much” read one post, retweeted 8,500 times.)

On Tuesday, that fantasy came crashing down. The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean revealed that two living, breathing homo sapiens had been composing the tweets as an art piece.

Such sad news!  We wanted it to be more.  But why?

Our dismay at finding that the bot was human actually reveals a great deal about we want from our devices: We’re rooting for the compassionate computer.

“If people are upset that [@Horse_ebooks] is a person, it’s because they were hoping for the future. They were hoping that in the future, computers would be not just responsive or smart, but poetic,” says Blade Kotelly, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an expert in user-interface design. “[The computers] wouldn’t just be executing. They’d be thoughtful, taking care of us.”

It hasn’t happened yet, but is this evident yearning somehow proof that we won’t rest until creative, poetic–dare I say feeling–machines are among us?

The other thing that I wanted to touch on (and only have time to do so briefly because I have to run to the next session) is a niggling problem I’ve had with some of the technologies described with such amazing prescience by Bush in his essay and, this week, in Doug Englebart’s 1962 report “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework.”  It has to do with Bush’s concept of the “associative trail:”

The human mind . . . operates by association.  With one item in its grasp, it snaps instantly to the next that is suggested by the association of thoughts, in accordance with some intricate web of trails carried by the cells of the brain. It has other characteristics, of course; trails that are not frequently followed are prone to fade, items are not fully permanent, memory is transitory. Yet the speed of action, the intricacy of trails, the detail of mental pictures, is awe-inspiring beyond all else in nature.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.

While they both rightly point out the utility of associative trails, the very verb in question is a challenge. These trails have “been associated” by the user rather than, in essence, associating themselves. In other words, the emphasis is on speeding up connections that are noted by the user to exist, not in finding connections that weren’t previously discovered.

Such approaches are very useful for supporting structured thinking, but not for discovering previously-undiscovered patterns or connections.  I can’t help but think THAT is where computers can and should take us.

 

 

 

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In considering recent definitions of digital humanities, I’m often struck by some common aspects of many of them—the ones that have nothing to do with the digital:

“. . . essentially collaborative . . .”

“. . . a commitment to the openness of knowledge.”

” . . . interdisciplinary; by necessity it breaks down boundaries between disciplines . . .”

“Making stuff, and using it to collaborate and connect with the public . . .”

“. . . genuine interdisciplinarity . . . open communication.”

“. . . an inclusive, open community . . .”

“. . . using interdisciplinary approaches that may go beyond the comfort level of traditional scholars . . .”

They speak to me in large part because I really come from the museum (specifically public history) and library worlds, and many of those celebrated features of DH are fundamental aspects and approaches of those other fields as well—and have been for a long time. The practitioners in those fields? Well, they’re my people.

Libraries, museums, the digital humanities, and other public-facing humanities efforts share some or all of the following values:

    • Collaboration
    • Inclusivity
    • Interdisciplinarity
    • Open Access
    • Open Process
    • Open Source
    • Involvement of the public and/or public “communities of passion”

I’ve started referring to this larger perspective as the open humanities. It’s a broad term that encompasses those values outlined above, values shared by many libraries, museums, public humanities projects and practitioners of all kinds and standing in opposition to much of the traditional approach of “solo scholar” research and closed publication.

If I were to offer a first-pass attempt at capturing these elements in a definition, I might say something like: the open humanities are those aspects of the humanities aimed at democratizing production and consumption of humanities research.  It makes no judgment on the precise manner or praxis in which this work is done or delivered.

And because I work in a digital humanities shop, I wanted to show my take on the relationship between digital humanities and the wider open humanities:

 

The digital humanities are a part of the open humanities to the extent that those same values are held, though of course the purely digital elements (the code, the markup, the hardware) are unique to the digital humanities and live largely outside of OH. That being said, much of DH—the commitment to open source, the collaborative nature of the field, the interdisciplinarity—is open.

As a comparison, the public humanities are virtually entirely open by my definition, so they are included entirely within the circle of OH almost entirely open by my definition, but as Sheila Brennan points out there are still elements even within those institutions that don’t support openness at every turn. (See my original diagram here.) There is also some overlap between public humanities and the digital humanities, as some—but not all—public humanities projects are also digital.  You see how this starts getting a little overly-Venn-diagrammatical, but you can probably see where I’m going.

Those who know me know that I’m no coder—some might say that means I’m not much of a digital humanist. I’d say I’m a proud open humanist with one foot solidly in the digital. That counts as DH for me.

I have followed the developments of the One Week | One Tool project with great interest over the past seven days.  Like everybody else, I’m very curious to see what the actual tool ends up being.

But whatever it is–and my knowledge of the people involved tells me that it’s definitely not going to be a disappointment–other observations can already be made about the process based on what we do know so far.

And the key one for me is this: #oneweek shows the merits of monotasking.  Or more broadly, that when you pull people out of their ordinary work environments and patterns and instead go full immersion in an environment focused on one thing, incredible things are possible.

I’ve seen the same thing happen with the summertime residential Virginia Governor’s School program which my wife directed for five years.  Her staff of fifty–a faculty made up of college professors and high school teachers from around the country and a committed, creative student life staff–built an incredible learning environment for four weeks that annually changed the lives of 400 gifted high school students.

One of the things that always struck me during the program was how hard it was to “break in” from the outside; sometimes frustrating, sure, when some banal but important thing having to do with scheduling some family event or question about a bill needed her attention.  But mostly it was just an impressive testimony to the creation of this focused and finite world, the throwing up of barriers that cut out the rest of the “real world” so that the authors of the program could concentrate fiercely on creating something the world had never seen before.

I imagine this is what happens at Pixar during their creative process.  It certainly happens at professional football training camps: players are pulled out of their daily routines and thrown in together to concentrate on this one thing at the exclusion of everything else.

Successful ingredients appear to include: a place apart, a finite length of time, a concentrated (and concentrating) group of people, a specific charge, and creativity.

The result?  Magic.  It happened at Governor’s School, and it happened at #oneweek.

And the takeaway question for me: how can we replicate that effect in the ordinary workplace, where multitasking tends to rob us from this kind of approach?

The past few days, thanks to blog- and Twitter-based discussions related to #followamuseum (which Day is, by the way, today), there’s been some interesting conversation around the question of whether museums ought to follow back those who follow them on Twitter, or whether doing so constitutes a kind of creepy stalking by the museum.

My practice as an institutional social media manager has generally been not to follow our followers, mostly for reasons of convenience along with a little twist of “gut says not to” thrown in.

But when confronted with the direct question and in getting caught up on the positive possibilities, my subsequent reaction was that museums following their followers is a great idea: after all, visitors are the life-blood of any institution and any opportunity to show that we appreciate and think highly of them should be seized without delay!

Then I heard again from those who thought it isn’t such a hot idea, and figured I should do some examination of the whole notion.

And upon this more measured reflection, taking into account comments in the various discussions above and weighing arguments on both sides of the equation, I’ve reached the conclusion that as a general rule, museums ought not make a habit of immediately following those who follow them.

Why ever not?  Aren’t these the people we want to build a relationship with?

The objection is, your honor, that doing so assumes a relationship not yet in evidence.

Pros and Cons

Let’s turn the question around a bit. In thinking about my own life on Twitter as an individual, how would I respond if an institution (say Honda, my local paper, or a museum) were to follow me?

On the one hand, if I see that the institution in question follows a large number of people, I don’t take their following me as a personal gesture outside of “we appreciate you.”  I certainly don’t think they’re seriously watching their tweetstream, so I don’t particularly worry about them cadging much personal info from me.  For me, any privacy-related concerns are lost in the volume of tweets the institution is receiving.

On the other hand, that very shotgun approach shows a lack of discernment that I find troubling. Institution, don’t you care about who you follow, or are we all just one great roaring mass of people?

But on the other hand, how else does an institution show honest appreciation to the people who follow them? Twitter doesn’t provide a whole lot of ways to say “Hey, you’re an individual we want to be connected to.”

But on the other hand, wouldn’t a one-off @ reply of thanks do the trick there?  “@visitorperson, we saw you started following us today. Thanks so much!”

On the other hand, maybe the institution might consider simply asking if their followers want to be followed in turn.  That, however, strikes me as a highly awkward and uncertain proposition. “Um, really, I don’t care that much about you, Honda.”

But on the other hand, what about direct messages? After all, they’re only available if each follows the other, and wouldn’t that be a nice way for an institution to get feedback?  This is true–we are cutting ourselves off of one possible channel of direct communication.  But to be fair, there certainly are plenty of others almost as easy.  Perhaps the solution there is to periodically tweet your institution’s main e-mail address (or a comments address you have one) and encourage them to contact you that way.

But in the end, doesn’t the individual (the “stalkee”) really have control?  They can always block the institution if the advance is unwanted.

On the other, why force them to have even one moment of “ick” feeling from an institution they might otherwise like and support?

Truth be told, there are no absolutes here. If I care a lot about or have an emotional attachment to the institution in question, I’m flattered (“ooh, they like me!”) but if I don’t, then I’m more than a little put off.

The point is, as the institutional tweeter, I can’t assume that our follower has that emotional attachment to my institution.

So where does that leave me?  In the end, my gut says that fewer people will be upset if I don’t follow them (even if it would be welcome) than will be upset if I do (when it is unwelcome), so I’ll stay with “not following, generally.”

But what’s so wrong with following a new follower?

Let me hand the mic to Judith Martin, who in her mild-yet-incisive way inveighs against the assumption of intimacy in a business relationship: “Miss Manners would like to point out that the pretense of intimacy among strangers in a business association . . . can be seriously annoying to either side.”

She goes on:

Why then is it not only more and more usual, but often vehemently defended?

The answer has to do with our noble commitment to egalitarianism, and a mistaken notion that it necessarily precludes privacy.  Among equals, are we not all friends?

Well, no. Equals get to choose their own friends, and while most people enjoy a cheerful demeanor while transacting the commercial details of daily life, not everyone wants to extend the privileges of friendship under those circumstances.

This is by no means to say that many restaurant patrons, for example, are not gratified to be recognized at places they customarily patronize, and to engage in such pleasantries as asking after one another’s health or family.

The point about such chatting, as in such other contacts between strangers as conversations on trains or airplanes, is that it should be agreeable to both sides, and that it should not assume the prerogatives of those who are on really familiar terms. [emphasis added in both cases]

Heed Miss Manners.

IF we as an institution develop a relationship within Twitter (or outside of it) and/or you as an individual follower seem especially invested in our institution as evinced through retweets of our tweets, feedback about our programs, and so on–well then I’ll happily follow you and think that doing so is very reasonable.  Just not before such a relationship is in evidence.

And one museum following another is simply the museum community supporting and learning from each other, so I would encourage that practice without reservation.

If a follower makes it clear that they’d be happy if you followed them, well by all means do so if you think it right.

So what about this idea of a #followavisitor Day?

Maybe instead of focusing on following our visitors–which may or may not be welcome–March 1 (or some other date) can be dedicated to institutions showing thanks for visitors both online and off? I doubt a museum’s tweeple will be upset if on this grand and glorious day the very heartfelt thanks of the institution is broadcast generally and very intentionally to all of them at the same time rather than individually.  Same for those who visit via Facebook, Flickr, the main web page, etc.

And there could and should be an offline component, expressing the same thanks to people who visit in person.  Maybe offer discounts or cookies or free shows.  Basically, I’d argue that #followavisitor day should be a multimodal tidal wave of appreciation for museum-goers of all kinds!

I’m all for it.

We live and work in a 2.0 world*: Web 2.0, Library 2.0, Museum 2.0, Classroom 2.0, Chocolate 2.0, Pepsi Bottling 2.0, 2.0 2.0, etc., etc., etc. Everybody’s got their own definition of what makes 2.0 different from what came before. 2.0 means “collaborative to the extreme” or “latest technology” or “easier to use” or “user-centered” or “interoperable” or “hip and now–you know, like groovy.”

For me, there is one core characteristic for “2.0″ in the web, library, and museum worlds in which I live, move, and have my being: 2.0 = the lowering of barriers.

On the web, the main barrier to participation is code. So barrier-surmounting technologies include blogs and Twitter and WYSIWYG website editors–anything characterized by its ability to get users up and running as participants in the conversation without a lot of effort (read: coding).  Ajax, CSS, XML–these things, while critical behind the scenes for many a 2.0 tool, are not themselves 2.0.**  They are not intuitive; they do not lower the barriers between average user and participation.  YouTube and Flickr and their simple interfaces do.

For museums, the big barrier is between the public and the institution as monolith.  It is that fabled voice of authority that so often gets in the way of public participation. The conversation has too often (until more recent years) been very much one-way, with the public seen as supplicants at the Temple of Knowledge: lucky to be there and expected to be quiet and take what is given them by those who know better than they.

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A week after the event, I have time to catch my breath a bit.  Last weekend I attended THATCamp, an unconference on the digital humanities hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

It was, in the profoundest sense of the word, awesome. THATCamp is a kind of crazy quilt of a hundred digital humanists of diverse backgrounds (academics, libraries, archives, museums, archaeology, documentary film, and more) and varying positions on the technical spectra (code hackers, designers, content expertise, points all in between) coming together to talk about the things they are passionate about.  It is user-generated, meaning the participants proposed the program, open discussion was at the heart of the matter, and Twitter enriched the entire experience. Completely the opposite of most academic and professional conferences, and I went them all to now be more like this.

You might want to check out others‘ reviews of the unconference format as lived out at THATCamp; learn the top 10 reasons THATCamp beats the pants off of traditional conferences; and read about excellent suggestions for improving future THATCamps.  Finally, to really immerse yourself, check out the THATCamp Twitter archive and the wiki.

Whew. That being said, onto my main point:

Three themes that stood out for me @ THATCamp

None of it revelatory to those who were there, but still–they jumped out to me during the weekend and after.

I. Library/Archive/Museum and Scholar Convergence

A sense of collaboration ran throughout THATCamp; indeed, collaboration could be said to be the life’s blood of the digital humanities, as was often discussed throughout the weekend. I’m used to considerations of library/archive/museum (LAM) convergence–been talking about that wonderful Venn diagram since before library school. The idea is that there is a lot of overlap in purpose, function, and employee skill set among those institutions and it’s a thing very much worth talking about, thereby making all three institutions faster/better/stronger.

But this is the first time I’ve been at a conference where academics and those who work at LAMs were so excited about the possibility of working all together on projects. In one of the last sessions, we had a frank discussion that touched on this very point: traditionally, there has been a kind of tension between, say, teaching faculty and librarians on campus, with the librarians often feeling put down (and put upon) by the faculty. Or as another example, scholars who have felt like museums ignore their work while mounting related exhibits.

But those traditional models are dissolving in the face of a more open approach. Many were the comments–explicit and implicit–throughout the weekend that pointed towards the increased success (and flat-out fun) of projects that involve the skills and backgrounds of many players. The traditional walls are falling down and technology is a major reason that is happening.

So: collaboration crushes division. I’m always happy to be on the right side of history; in this case, I’m even happier to be on the right side of the future.

II. The Centrality of Tools

A quick check of the archive of the twitterstream shows 142 uses of the word “tool” or its variants in the backchannel talk over the course of the weekend; I can guarantee the word was uttered out loud at least as many times. The people at THATCamp are perhaps, like their Paleolithic ancestors, set apart from their own forebears by their use and appreciation of tools–digital ones, to be sure, but tools nonetheless. All the incredible historical and literary data that has gone online over the past fifteen or twenty years (on the order of tens of petabytes) is meaningless without some way to do something with it, and THATCamp folks are passionate about creating and using ever-more-innovative and helpful ways to mold and connect that data.

Which is something to be said, since by several accounts this year’s THATCamp was more conversational and less hands-on than last year’s. But even without as many intense coding sessions, it was clear that the participants aren’t just thinkers–they are doers.  It’s part of the digital humanities ethos.

III. Much love for the unconference model

My sense is that for a lot of us first-time campers, THATCamp was a revelation–it could be heard in the conversations we were having at dinner after the first night, seen in the backchannel tweatstream, and read in the blogs written after the fact. For many of us who had only been to traditional academic and professional conferences, THATCamp had us emerging from our gloomy previous experiences, blinking in the sunlight of cooperative, open participation.

The excitement has carried on, too. Folks are talking about regional THATCamps in (at last count) at least twelve locations: Central Virginia, New England, Texas/Austin, Pacific Northwest, Midwest, NY/NJ, Southeast, Oklahoma, Ontario, London,  Australia, the Great Lakes. And acolytes are talking about carrying the gospel to other organizations, too: AHA, AAM, SAA, the Virginia Forum, and Smithsonian 2.0. Related lunches may soon be held on Skype and at the Library of Congress.

There’s something about the digital humanities/THATCamp model that really speaks to folks: myself, I think it’s the creativity and collaboration.  The old model of the dusty scholar working alone amid his musty tomes, speaking occasionally to the four other people on the planet who share his narrow interest (and hoping to beat them all at the game), doesn’t cut it any more. Content specialization certainly won’t die, but the doing of it will entail a lot more collaboration and communication–it’s really inevitable, since the next generation of scholars will have largely grown up in a world with Web 2.0 tools and other online resources that both expand their worlds and pull them closer to their fingertips.

There will always be humanists who jealously guard their labors, for sure, just as their have always been humanists who are collaborative.  But the pendulum is shifting in favor of the latter.

Just look at how, in less than a week, the THATCamp unconference model has gone global.

One final note: I cannot say thank you enough to Dave Lester, Jeremy Boggs, Tom Scheinfeldt, Dan Cohen, and all the behind-the-scenes folks at the Center for History and New Media for putting on such an incredible, energizing weekend.

It was . . . awesome.

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[Note to self: never try to launch a blog just before a series of major projects get under way.  This is the start of my do-over.]

**

I wanted to be a buffalo hunter on the digital frontier.  But that’s not really me right now, and that’s okay.

Let me ‘splain:

Fans of David Milch’s brilliant Deadwood are familiar with that late and lamented series’ meta-narrative: Deadwood was an exploration of how civilization grows out of the uncivilized chaos of the frontier.  Through the life of the series, Milch hinted and squinted at the sequence of steps that led to a community’s rise in the howling wilderness:

Al Swearengen: “Where were they when Dan and me were chopping trees in this gulch, hands all blistered, buck-tooth f__ing beavers rolling around in the creek, slapping their tails on the water like we was hired entertainment?”

Ellsworth: Well, Ma’am, I’ve got myself a workin’ gold claim.

Clell: No law at all in Deadwood? Is that true?
Seth: Bein’ on Indian land.
Clell: So then you won’t be a marshal?
Seth: Takin’ goods there to open a hardware business. Me and my partner.

Sol: Looks like we’re in business, huh?

Al: Well, anyways, this is it.  What we spoke about before, this puts it to the test.
Seth:  Alright.
Al: Informal municipal organization.  Not government.  No, that would mark us rebellious.  But structure enough to persuade those territorial [people] in Yankton that we’re worthy enough to pay them their f___ing bribes.

Wolcott: “The operations of the old Aurora and Keet’s mines and a number of smaller adjoining claims are now entirely consolidated, accessed through the former Hidden Treasure property. . . . With purchase of the claim formerly operated by the Manuel brothers, we will control save one—-the Garret property—-every considerable deposit now discovered. . . .”

Martha: I hope I’m…adequate to guiding my son’s studies—I believe I am.  But a child in solitude cannot find his gift for society.
Alma: What do you propose?
Martha: That I teach the camp’s children.

Jack:  My interest, to be direct, is in buying your building.
Joanie: What do you want to use it for?
Jack:  A theater. My troupe will season in this camp.

Or to look at the frontier succession through another famous, if rather oversimplified, approach: that of Frederick Jackson Turner’s famous essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History“:

The Atlantic frontier was compounded of fisherman, fur trader, miner, cattle-raiser, and farmer. Excepting the fisherman, each type of industry was on the march toward the West, impelled by an irresistible attraction. Each passed in successive waves across the continent. Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file–the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer–and the frontier has passed by.

The point here that I’m stealing from Deadwood and from Turner’s frontier thesis is that it is no huge stretch to see any given point on the frontier as evolving through stages from wilderness to exploration to capitalization to cultivation.  The wild, then the explorers and trappers, then the traders, then frontier outposts, then rough towns, then the trappings of “culture:” schools, libraries, and the theater.

The digital frontier, it could be argued, moves in similar waves: first, the coders and innovators; then the early adopters; then, as things become a bit safer, the commercial interests; finally, wider, settled acceptance.  Or to go with Everett Rogers’ “diffusion of innovation” succession: innovators; early adopters; early majority; late majority; laggards.

This pattern has certainly been seen in the diffusion of digital services like blogs, Facebook, and Twitter: the service is encoded; a few early adopters start playing with it, sharing with their other early adopter friends; word gets out and more people start joining in; enough people get involved and platforms get stable enough that commercial interests start sniffing around.  In fact, at a conference I attended earlier this year, a speaker mentioned something along the lines of, “Once Chevrolet and Marriott show up on Twitter, you know it’s time to move on to the next technology.”

So why bring all this up?  Because, as I said at the outset, I once aspired to hunt buffalo on the digital frontier.  I liked to picture myself as a guy out ahead of the masses, helping blaze the digital trails others would follow. But that’s not really my place.  I’ve come to realize that I’m not so much the innovative frontiersman as I am a guy several steps down the continuum of succession, living in a pretty well-established digital frontier town. Not out there in front, but also a good bit further out there than most folks. Say it’s the St. Louis of 1846; to the settled people back east, I’m on the edge of the howling frontier wilderness.  But to the real frontiersmen and women further west, I’m one of those folks back in the last big city.  I mean, there are parks!  Gas lights!  A Mercantile Library Association, for all love!  I’m not soft like the dandies back in New York City, but I ain’t out with a horse and rifle miles from nowhere hunting down stray code, either.

And that’s okay.  Mid-19th-century St. Louis was a hub of activity, pulling the trappings of civilization out from the east and learning all it could of the unknown areas to the west.  Since circumstances dictate it, settling in at the crossroads on the edge of the digital frontier is a pretty good place to be for a while.  Since I don’t really have the time right now to get out on the bleeding edge, I’ll stay on my scratch-built front porch, reading my dime novels (you know, like Wired and Fast Company) and dreaming of the day that I’ll pack my rifle and join one of the exploring expeditions heading into the digital frontier.

For now I can take advantage of the town’s civilized ways–its strong infrastructure and museums and libraries–but I’d be crazy not to keep an eye on reports from the explorers coming in from the digital west to see when and where my own excursions might get under way.

And who knows, while I’m here maybe I can send some useful information back east to “civilization,” too.

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Last Sunday, before Computers in Libraries, I had time to kill after joining my sisters and mother for an early lunch of tapas at the always-fantastic Jaleo in northwest Washington.  Kill time?  In Washington?  That means one place for me: the Smithsonian.  Growing up in northern Virginia meant school and family trips downtown, and there was always, always something fascinating to see and do in the museums on the Mall (and heck, my first job was at a Smithsonian unit: four summers at the National Zoo).

It’d been too many years since I’d been to the National Museum of Natural History, so I decided to check out the new Sant Ocean Hall and hit the slightly-less-new Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals.  There, amid the exhibits on biodiversity and mammalian inner ear structures, the displays of snow-adapted animals and of bottled cephalopods, the models of whales and the specimens of white-footed mice, I found an unlooked-for reminder of just why it is I love working in museums.

They inspire such a palpable and immediate sense of wonder.

And so often they do it in the simplest way possible: by putting cool objects in front of people.

None of the exhibits I saw was filled to the gills with whiz-bang gadgetry.  Sure, there were small video screens and the occasional touch screen, simple interactives and the requisite orientation films–but so often I get the sense that some believe that without producing the equivalent of quick-cutting, hyper-animated, Grand Theft Auto-inspired museum technology infostraviganzas, no child–no modern person–will ever want to set foot in a museum again.

Could have fooled me, that’s for sure.

I couldn’t stop smiling as I wandered through the exhibit spaces.  Here was a teenage girl jumping back and squealing after lifting the door on a shrew’s-nest of earthworms.  There was a posse of what looked for all the world like tattooed skinheads snapping cell phone pictures of themselves in “Going to Sea.”  Everywhere were little kids with mouths agape, eyes popping, and fingers pointing.

And the stuff that was getting them so excited was, again, so essentially simple.  Phoenix the whale, right overhead.  The giraffe arcing its neck by the door.  The bats–and more bats.  The giant squid.

They tugged their parents over and said, “Oooooh.  Look!” again and again.  And the parents dutifully looked.  And took pictures, as if the animals were alive.  And a lot of them read the exhibit labels and told their kids–or their college buddies or their spouses–more about what it was they were looking at.

It wasn’t about the technology.  It was about the stuff.

Computers are great.  Heck, computers are at the heart of the work I do.  But it’s good to be reminded from time to time that computers aren’t the end of what we do; computers are a means to the true end.  The best museum technology helps the institution accomplish one of the its most essential missions: evoke wonder.

The tech needn’t be complex. It just needs to be true to that mission.

The wonder will follow.

And to be sure, there’s nothing really revelatory in the above for most museum professionals. I would wager a lot of us–whether we’re librarians, curators, maintenance workers, managers, interpreters, visitors services personnel, or something else–got into museum work because of just this sort of feeling.  But I will say this: it did me a world of good to lift my head from the day-to-day work I do and see the amazing effect of the work we do together as “museum people” on the visiting public.

So I say: get on out there and check out another museum in action.  Preferably a place for which you have no responsibility whatsoever.  You’ll probably get recharged, just like I did.

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