Nicholas Poole
Nov 25, 2014 · 19 min read

A response to Mike Edson’s “Dark Matter: the Internet is open, social, peer-to-peer and read-write. And its only just begun”, by Nick Poole.

This essay is part of CODE|WORDS, a collaborative writing project about technology in museums.

Everybody loves a good story. Stories have the power to draw out universal threads in our common experience. They can inform and entertain, terrify and inspire us.

And yet stories aren’t real. Life isn’t made of protagonists and antagonists. Our histories don’t follow a linear narrative arc from exposition to resolution. The girl doesn’t always get the guy, or indeed the girl.

Mike Edson’s brilliant essay ‘Dark Matter’ draws a neat comparison between the mind-bogglingly huge quantity of dark matter which is necessary if the laws of physics are to make any sense and the vast quantity of cultural output which lies outside the boundaries of our cultural heritage institutions.

And yet I don’t think that achieving Mike’s vision is simply a matter of scale, or of speed. I think it is a question of change — how we learn to respond to change as cultural heritage institutions and how we help people make sense of the changes happening all around them.

The Dark Matter that Vera Rubin discovered provides observational support for a theory that originated with a problem in Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. The problem is closely associated with the theory of cosmological inflation — that the universe is expanding, and the rate at which it is expanding is accelerating.

The story of modern cosmology is the story of a shift from steady-state theory — the idea that the universe is constantly generating new stuff to fill the space left by our expanding Universe — and ‘Big Bang’ theory, which holds that all the stuff in the Universe was there at the beginning, it was just a lot more squashed.

Both of these stories have one narrative thread in common — the entire universe, every force, every particle, every idea is in a constant state of perpetual change.

Order from chaos

The theory of ‘emergence’ is the theory of how small patterns like chemistry and electromagnetic forces interact to form big ones like life, people, the Houses of Parliament and ice-cream. A key feature of emergence is that it is constant — it happens everywhere in a complex system, and all at once.

And critically, emergence is incremental — each new state of a complex system is a result of the history of complex interactions that preceded it. In helping people deal with change in their own lives, this idea of an incremental history — that today’s condition depends on the countless social and human interactions that preceded it — is fundamental to the civic and social role of museums.

Human beings have always needed a way of keeping score — of handing down knowledge about why things are as they are. Whether it’s the cave paintings at Lascaux, the Library of Alexandria or the museums of today and tomorrow, this is how we figure out how we’re getting on, where we fit, what we’ve forgotten and how much more there is to do. Emergence in human terms is hard to comprehend, which is why museums provide for the analog equivalent of taking notes as we go along.

If this is a defining feature of what a museum is and does, then it ought to follow logically that the more comprehensively and objectively we keep score, and the more openly available we make the footnotes, the better we are fulfilling that role.

Mike’s Challenge

And so I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how the museum sector of our generation (and the generations to come) can step up to Mike’s challenge to transform our expectations of scale, scope and speed.

The key to meeting Mike’s challenge, for me, resides in understanding the role of museums in helping people to deal with change, chaos and complexity. And in much the same way as a trainee psychotherapist has to undergo therapy, I suspect the process begins with understanding our own attitudes to these forces.

The Internet loves Corporations

The question Rawls posits is whether, from this position of ignorance, people would again self-organize into tribes, societies and companies. Whether there are underlying principles which make these structures inevitable in our human experience.

There is a theory that these structures exist because they are the optimal way of balancing individual needs with collective ones, of stewarding and distributing resources in a way that maximizes individual utility. That, love them or hate them, Corporations provide necessary nodes in the mesh of global consumption and distribution.

The meteoric rise of the Internet from Tim Berners-Lee’s utopian vision of an egalitarian network of creators to the complex online ecology of today is just such an exercise in re-applying social and personal dynamics.

And what we see — the web of Dark Matter at the heart of Mike’s vision of the read/write web — is that from this position of relative innocence we have once again created an entity that oscillates between freedom and commodification, neutrality and propaganda.

Mike is right to point out that ‘culture’ is most often what people do, and that they don’t immediately draw the connection between the artists and musicians in their community and the experience of ‘heritage’ in a vitrine. But I don’t think that dealing with this Dark Matter is as simple as raising our ambition — the picture he presents is politically-neutral, whereas every aspect of the web, and of what museums do, is politicized, whether people like it or not.

There is an irony in the fact that the Vlogbrothers that Mike cites in Dark Matter as an example of the benign power of scale choose as their platform a privately-owned enterprise. In an attention economy, in which time spent on a website has a measurable dollar-value, the ROI on their Kickstarter campaign is dwarfed by the ROI for YouTube of the views, likes and shares they generate.

Further, you could argue that this relationship — between creators and Corporations — is symbiotic. The Vlogbrothers could only achieve their scale and speed because of the platform YouTube provides for them. YouTube can only continue to operate as a benign corporate entity to the extent that it provides a neutral platform for the Vlogbrothers of this world.

We’re not neutral

In reality, though, this apparent objectivity masks the fact that we have always been pretty selective about which skirmishes we’ll focus on and which we’ll ignore. Things are getting much, much better, but we are as complicit as anyone else in the minor oversights of history. Little things like the fact that women make art, engineering, mathematics, literature, industry and philosophy or that many of humanity’s greatest scientific achievements originate in the Islamic world.

The point is that ‘singular’ stories of human development, while comforting are rarely ever right. The real histories are chaotic, emergent, complex and inter-dependent.

For centuries, the role of museums has been to digest complexity and express it as pattern. Whether it is a linear hang in an art museum, giving the impression of a coherent progression of art-historical movements or a social-historical display giving the impression of a singular ‘community’ with identifiably-shared beliefs and values — we are temples to the illusion of order and predictability in a complex and chaotic world.

And there is a real danger in our habit of turning the world into single stories, as the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie says,

It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power. There is a word, an Igbo word, that I think about whenever I think about the power structures of the world, and it is “nkali.” It’s a noun that loosely translates to “to be greater than another.” Like our economic and political worlds, stories too are defined by the principle of nkali: How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power.

In dealing with Mike’s ‘Dark Matter’, the immense creative output enabled through the web, there is a genuine risk of taking something egalitarian and filtering it once again through those same power structures that gave rise to the sense of exclusion from our cultural institutions in the first place.

The risk of re-enclosure

While comforting, the permanence of the Commons is illusory. Until the early 1600's, much of England was managed as common land. Using the open field system, farmers were able to use meadowlands and fields in common, so long as they accepted shared responsibility for their management and care.

In 1604 came the first of more than 5000 Enclosure Acts by which these common lands were legally transferred to private ownership. (And lest we fall into the trap of thinking that this was yet another act of capitalist retrenchment, for the most part it turned out that enclosure led to better use, more effective practices, more sustainable relationships between the farmer and their land).

When we accept an object into a collection, it can either represent an act of liberation (moving something from individual private ownership into the collective ownership of the Cultural Commons) or of enclosure (moving it from circulation in the free market into a privileged environment to which access is fundamentally restricted).

Whether your museum is committing an act of liberation or enclosure when it collects depends on the values which define what you do. At the moment, a large part of our community runs a profound risk of committing what I’ll call ‘openwash’.

‘Greenwash’ is the name given to actions whereby a company vaunts its environmental credentials while failing to operate in an environmentally accountable and sustainable way. By the same token ‘openwash’ can be used to refer to any institution which speaks the language of the Commons, of participation and engagement, while betraying these very principles through their actions.

Openwash is what happens when the change in our museums is peripheral rather than central. It is what happens when we claim to be stewarding heritage for and with the people, but end up doing it in spite of them, or in ways that exclude them.

Examples of openwash in museums abound — institutions which view engagement and participation primarily or even exclusively as a marketing tool, where the staff long to be open, but find themselves constrained by a Mission which speaks of ownership and exclusivity, or where the aspirations of the museum are limited by a Board of Trustees whose professional experience was forged in a different kind of economy.

My recent research into attitudes toward openness in the UK Government-funded museums demonstrates how these attitudes are playing out in reality. There is a sense that the tide of history has turned in favour of openness , but that every individual museum has to go through its own process of learning to stop depending on existing, known models and to embrace models which aren’t in reality yet fully-defined or proven.

As one museum director put it to me, “The way I see it, openness in museums is still an opportunity. But it’s an opportunity that’s about to become a threat.”

The risk of museum ideologies

When a young family put their head round the door of a museum and ask ‘are you open?’, the chances are that they aren’t asking about the political and philosophical stance of the museum on enclosure. They’re quite likely to be asking whether they can come in, whether they can have a coffee or use the restrooms.

The UK Museums Association recently undertook a public consultation about attitudes towards museums as part of their ‘Museums Change Lives’ campaign. The question hinged on whether people, everyday, normal people visiting museums, want their museums to become more socially active and engaged — champions of social justice.

And the answer was pretty clear — no. People, by and large, trust museums to collect the important stuff, keep it safe, show it to them when they visit and tell them about it.

It’s been really noticeable that in the great Copyright Wars of the late 90's and early 00's, the loudest voices, the ones clamoring for change, have been the ones with the most vested interest in the legal and economic enclosure of or access to collections. It isn’t, by and large, the general public that are calling for copyright reform or the adoption of Creative Commons. It’s copyright reformers.

Does this prick the bubble of optimism for ideological change in the museum sector? Not at all — it just means that the ideology underpinning what we do and how we do it isn’t an end-user proposition. It’s something the visiting public should feel and sense in the experiences they enjoy, but there’s a real question about whether we ought to conflate our own internal conversation about change with the expression of a new, more dynamic and relevant offer to the visiting public.

I imagine that the Vlogbrothers have an entire world-view which defines the way they engage with their global audience, but I don’t have to sit through a discussion on ideology before enjoying their stuff.

A theory of growth in a networked world

The catalyst for acceptance of sport as a true development tool, recognised for its ability to promote and sustain peace, to promote education and health and to be used as a tool for wider social development action, will be determined by the ability of the sector to coalesce and collaborate as a network.

Replace the word ‘sport’ with ‘culture’ and the message holds equally true. If the defining organizational structure of our age is the network, then the challenge for museums is not how to broadcast to or participate in networks, but how to redesign themselves as inherently networked organizations.

In a networked world, success depends on achieving a fundamental transition from being a ‘bounded’ organization, defined by physical, intellectual and historical constraints, to an unbounded one. Growth in a ‘bounded’ organization means ramming more and more stuff into the stores, spreading capacity ever more thinly and seeking comfort in some far-off and imagined time when money will rain down and permit the acquisition of more — more space, more time, more stuff.

Growth in an unbounded organization is measured in openness and the addition of value for your network. An unbounded organisation is ‘promiscuous’ in the virtuous sense that Ed Rodley describes in his own CODE|WORDS essay ‘The Virtues of Promiscuity’. It is characterized by egalitarianism and equality of expression. It provides a platform for people to explore complex and emergent patterns, rather than presenting a set of predetermined patterns for them to spectate. It doesn’t mean being neutral, but it does depend on us being transparent about our partiality.

The critical feature of unbounded organizations is that they are in a constant state of adaptation and innovation at the edges. Like soup in a pan, great ideas form in the hot zones at the periphery and migrate inward until they become core practice. A bounded organization resists change, an unbounded one lives by it. And because of this, because innovation is a fact of life, unbounded organizations can be much more agile in adapting to change. Instead of trying to predict and plan for innovation, they self-organize around whichever innovation is optimal for survival and future growth.

The global success of TED is a case in point. TED is an unbounded organization — it has a central mission, to spread good ideas, but is inherently adaptive in its approach to spreading them. It harnesses its network to do the spreading, and in the process gains new fuel (in the form of great ideas and speakers) to do more. This is the very definition of virality — not that everybody clicks ‘like’ on your page, but that the vector is both the host and the mode of transmission, the food and the shotgun. This viral link in museums is all too often broken — as Mike says, people willingly and enthusiastically transmit ‘culture’, but they tend to freeze up when it is formalized as heritage.

Before museums can step up to the challenge of dealing with Mike’s Dark Matter, before they can become ‘open’ in the sense of unbounded, we need to address this central tension between neutrality and partiality in the way human history is selected, filtered, interpreted, packaged and presented back to the individual. Wim Pijbes, Director of the Rijksmuseum expressed just this challenge when speaking at a recent conference in Rome:

When I arrived in this job, I had 3 tasks. First, I had to open the building [closed for refurbishment for several years]. Then I had to open the collection. Finally, I have to open the idea of the museum in the minds of the people who work there.

Which revolution?

Even if we eventually create one in historical retrospect, there will never be a definitive moment at which technology transformed our world. And as with the social, industrial and agrarian revolutions that preceded it, the real story won’t be the virtual ploughshares or digitized looms, but the great shifts in socio-economic behaviour that accompany them.

The Dark Matter Mike writes about, the huge untapped realm of creative and cultural output manifest via the web is both a reaction against and a product of the drive toward globalization. It creates the tantalizing potential for a more libertarian and equitable society while reinforcing social and economic division. It seems to offer universal equality while strengthening tribalism, to be social while at the same time profoundly anti-social.

There is a striking feature which connects several of the digital platforms that we often reference as a benchmark for scale and online success. Facebook, Tumblr, twitter, Pinterest, Flickr all affect innocence of and adopt broad non-interventionist policies about the nature of the content that flows across their platform. “Here is a playground we made.”, they say, “It’s free. You can go play to your heart’s content and we won’t interfere. Have fun!” They are not accountable to the future, whereas the entire practical foundation of a museum is engineered around accountability.

That they can do so with such immense commercial success is because the Internet is geared around the commodification of time spent. The mission is more people spending more time on a given platform, and so the objectives which drive this mission are ‘by whatever means necessary’. Had you told the bulk of humanity 100 years ago that by 2014 they would willingly toil unpaid for countless hours to generate value for a profit-making enterprise, it would have sparked a moral panic.

And because the platforms are a cipher, designed to maximise self-expression (and only self-expression), they reflect both the best and the worst of human nature. In the same context, they provide the opportunity for immense social and economic progress while harbouring viciousness, spite and vacuity in equal measure. And in all cases, they are deniable — “hey, we just provide the platform. It’s you that defines the game.”

But a museum is not a neutral platform. Our mission is not to commodify quantities of visitors, but to deliver social, personal and educational benefit from the people we interact with. It is not to engage people peripherally with culture, but to place engagement and participation at the core of what we do, and to continue to evolve and adapt our services to optimise the individual’s opportunity to exercise their right of engagement.

This does not mean we shouldn’t aspire to scale — the ambition has to be to ensure that every single person feels entitled to this experience and acts on this entitlement irrespective of their socio-economic status or cultural context. But it does mean that our aspirations to scale may be limited by the fact we are a purpose, a social and political cause with a specific world-view and delivery model, and not just a platform.

Our beliefs about the web, like our beliefs about cultural heritage, are a product of a Western rationalist tradition, rooted in a history of communitarianism and conflict, and they sometimes come embarrassingly close to re-inventing concepts that have been core to other world philosophies for centuries. Museums have evolved not to challenge this singularity of perspective but to reinforce it — it is a peculiar feature of our age that ancient cultures around the world are busily appropriating the idiom of Western museums as a badge of Enlightenment, rather than inventing an idiom of their own.

Technology, then, presents museums with a stark and difficult choice. Whether to use it to create a virtual simulacrum of the turn-of-the-century Museum, with its comforting way of presenting chaos as pattern, or to disrupt our own industry in the hope of transforming it into something more egalitarian, open and participatory.

Will we, in short, use the transformative power of the web, the equalizing power of technology and the potential for mass-engagement to re-build our existing museums in code, or to imagine something that does the same job in a fundamentally new way that is compatible with, but doesn’t slavishly copy, the existing social idioms of the web?

Culture change

Can we take a model that has been optimized over 200 years to create the impression of order and pattern, to deliver ‘single stories’ of historical progression, and use it as the raw material for a new industry whose primary purpose is to equip everyone with the tools to engage more productively and creatively with complexity?

Can we take an industry the primary output of which is linear narrative, and reverse-engineer from it a new industry that helps people deal with non-linearity?

Can we learn to be uncomfortable about the people we’re not serving (the discomfort implied by Dark Matter) and to prioritize their needs and interests over those of our known and trusted customers?

Can we avoid the trap of ‘openwash’ and learn to be open at our very core? Can we seize on the opportunity of genuine openness before it becomes an existential threat?

And can we do so while keeping the doors open, the staff paid, and the exhibition programme rolling?

I think we can. In fact, I think we must.

Shift happens

For too many people, as Beth Harris points out, the experience of museums is one of self-abnegation rather than empowerment. In a world that is defined by agency (accelerated by the worlds of consumer electronics, online gaming and customer-centric services), many museum experiences are designed to inhibit the individual sense of capability and collaboration. It is no coincidence that the model of the museum visit is often built around Adichie’s ‘nkali’ (the sense of being greater than another) — the very opposite of peer-to-peer.

It is striking that there is an increasing focus on participatory practice in museums, which strengthens the impression that museums are not themselves unbounded or peer-to-peer in their essence — that ‘participatory’ is something we need to do, rather than something we are.

Again, technology provides new tools, new idioms and new expectations on the part of the consumer, but with these comes the increased risk of techno-utopianism — the perception that the technology in itself will provide all of the answers. We know enough of the web now to know that, like a hammer or a political philosophy, technology can be used well and it can be used badly. It can be benign of malign. It can marginalize as much as it equalizes.

The medium-term aim has to be to normalize technology into the mainstream idiom of what a museum is and does. And in so doing, we need to ensure that neither remains unchanged. We should give our museums the opportunity to become unbounded, to open up and to come to think of audiences as peers in a collaborative process — reflecting the social and economic changes that technology has already wrought in other industry sectors. At the same time, we should avoid the wholesale appropriation of or surrender to this platform or that website, but learn instead how to be playful and creative in augmenting the experience of culture and complexity reflected through our institutions.

In the future, I hope that the norm becomes one in which museums are creatively and digitally prolific and opportunistic, that we come to accept our core role as facilitators of collaborative reflection and that we come to be recognized as such across both our virtual and physical identities.

A new role for museums

It is not to focus on technology, but to learn from the waves of technology-driven social change and from this new understanding of the needs and expectations of ordinary human beings to begin to use a different language to express what we are there to do.

It is not to overlay history with the illusion of pattern and predictability, but to give people places, experiences and tools which help them engage creatively and positively with chaos and change.

It is not to commodify people or attention, but to understand that with openness comes scale, and with scale comes greater opportunity for financial and popular success.

It is not to use our knowledge and expertise to alienate or to reinforce power structures, but to put them at the service of everyone that wants to make use of them to draw out their own conclusions.

It is not to stop being museums, but to take the core role and identity of the museum and adapt it to be more authentic, more open and more relevant to a broader cross-section of society.

Technology can certainly help us rewrite the social contract with the communities we serve. It can offer us channels and tools to make good on the promise of a more egalitarian and unbounded approach. But it cannot in itself transform our organizations. That bit is up to us.

CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum

An Experiment in Online Publishing and Discourse

CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum

An Experiment in Online Publishing and Discourse

Nicholas Poole

Written by

CEO of Collections Trust working to open up cultural heritage collections for discovery, use and enjoyment!

CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum

An Experiment in Online Publishing and Discourse