Museums and the playful web – a revolution in sensemaking

Below is a 15-minute slides-and-voice version of my presentation to Museums & the Web Asia in Melbourne on 6 October 2105. And here’s the original, longer paper (300kb PDF).

Production notes

- in Keynote via Keynote remote, with its nifty drawing-on-screen 

- Quicktime (for images)
- Voice Recorder on iPhone (for audio) – and yeah, the audio is
suboptimal; I considered re-recording it so I sounded less laboured
and boomy, but decided to move on. Forgive me...

Compiled into a movie:
- Images and voice merged in iMovie

- on YouTube because you can upload notes and it automatically 
matches the words to your voice

In this new digital age, the future is analogue

How can an 80-year-old institution persistently drive cultural innovation? It’s an interesting question, and one that Glenn Lowry, longtime director of the Museum of Modern Art, addressed in his recent lecture at the National Gallery of Australia. I don’t claim to have a solution, but I do want to draw attention to what I regard as an error, or oversight, in Lowry’s (and others’!) thinking – which I believe could clarify the problem, at least for the foreseeable future.

Lowry impressed the audience – myself included – with his enthusiastic embrace of technology for maintaining MoMA’s edginess.

Glenn Lowry in front of a screen illustrating the ways in which MoMA is 'doing digital'

And he secured my full attention with this next slide, on principles for working in the context of an increasingly complex and unpredictable world.

Glenn Lowry in front of a screen displaying a set of principles for the network age

The principles are borrowed from a presentation by Joi Ito, MIT Media Lab director. They are inspired by the fact that the modern industrial way of being in the world no longer works. Now that the means of production and distribution are accessible to almost anyone, the process – of business, culture and so on – is much more complex and difficult to control. How to adapt to these new circumstances is not yet clear but we do know that our survival depends on radical adaptation.

So we’re starting to revise our mental models of how the world works. Lowry talked about this shift with reference to two diagrams of the genealogy of modern art. First, he presented this 1936 diagram of cubism and abstract art, made by MoMA’s first director, Alfred Barr:

Glenn Lowry showing a slide on cubism and abstract art

He contrasted that with a diagram produced for MoMA’s 2012 exhibition, Inventing Abstraction:

Glenn Lowry presenting a slide showing the network diagram MoMA  made for its 2012 exhibition, Inventing Abstraction

In 1936, the mental model was was a linear and hierarchical genealogy; by 2012, it had become a dynamic, interconnected network. And the network model is useful because it accommodates complexity and cultivates lateral thinking.

It’s not that networks are new – the map is not the territory, right? The same artists were the subject of both diagrams; ecosystems and social systems have always operated through complex clouds of relationships; and – this is an obvious but critical point – there have always been peoples for whom the modern western scientific industrial model of the world is foreign and highly fraught (to say the least).

So what’s going on now is not an update of our mental models to fit a new world order. Rather, we’re having to let go of aspects of our customary (modern western) thinking in order to recognise the eternal fact of our network-connected reality. In this sense what’s happening now is a reversion to a pre-industrial epistemology, to a mental model that preceded and will supersede – at least in part – logical, binary oppositional thinking.

The troubling part – and this is the point to which I objected in Lowry’s talk – is that we conflate digital technologies with network thinking, and misidentify the outmoded model as analogical.

Wrong, wrong, wrong! Computers are built on binary logic; they are the quintessentially logical outcome of reductive, logical, binary oppositional, linear, hierarchical, mechanistic, modernist thought. Yes, they have levelled up, lately, so that our interfaces to them can now show an interactive web of connections; they have become adept at mapping networks. But in this, they are serving our aspiration for technology to transcend digital, to return us to our natural analogical milieux.

The excitement of 3D printing and the thriving maker movement are testament to this yearning for a futuristic analogue, but it’s more than that. Another clue is in the fact that for Lowry and for the thousands of New Yorkers who flocked to it, a standout MoMA exhibition was Marina Abramović’s The artist is present, where every day for the duration of the exhibition, anyone could go and sit with her, in silence. Abramović’s work is about the space between herself and the visitor, the dynamic, continuous gradient, the common ground, the humanity – it is precisely, I would argue, about the analogue.

We don’t need to learn to think digitally; we need to find ways to harness digital technologies in the service of enriching our analogical (interconnected, poetic, holistic, three-dimensional) experience of the world. That’s one way to describe my mission in making this game of analogy. And it seems like an ample agenda for any modern art museum keen to stay edgy in the next century.


Here’s how I tried to express these ideas right after the lecture, in two tweets.

My DO dialogue

Last week I drove into the gorgeous (if cold!) Victorian high country to attend the inaugural Australian Do Lectures at the very lovely Payne’s Hut.

OMG interesting people! As well as enjoying the official talks, I was plenty inspired by in-between conversations with non-speaking Do-ers. It was an intense connective experience, quite exhausting but since my homecoming I’ve been thinking about it and planning some action.

The diagram below shows some of the frequencies I tuned into while listening to the talks.

My DO dialogue

Obviously it’s ‘sembly’. By identifying themes that multiple speakers addressed, I’m taking a Sembl approach to thinking and talking about my experience of the lectures. It may be a little cryptic (? do I need to explain it further?) but I hope it conveys a substantial sense of DO goodness.

Sembl praxis: identify sameness, explore difference

As part of his ‘Mining the museum’ installation at Maryland Historical Society in 1992–93, artist Fred Wilson placed a set of shackles in a display case with fine silverware and titled it Metalwork. Pow. United by the metal of their fabrication, the racially-divided, hierarchical histories of these objects dramatically distances them:

Who served the silver? And who could have made the silver objects in apprenticeship situations? And […] whose labour could produce the wealth that produced the silver?

A general principle can be distilled from this. Perhaps: In the very moment we identify a similarity between two objects, we recognise their difference. In other words, the process of drawing two things together creates an equal opposite force that draws attention to their natural distance. So the act of seeking resemblance – consistency, or patterns – simultaneously renders visible the inconsistencies, the structures and textures of our social world. And the greater the conceptual distance between the two likened objects, the more interesting the likening – and the greater the understanding to be found.

This simultaneous pulling together and springing apart of the sociophysical world interests me, and I’ve been thinking about it in relation to Sembl, where the challenge of the game is to identify a way in which a given object is related – surprisingly or humorously or otherwise interestingly – to another object.

What constitutes ‘interesting’ is of course difficult to define and depends to a large degree on the particular players playing. But if the natural conceptual distance between the two related objects is great, the relationship is more likely to be interesting – perhaps because it enables you to think about something in a new way. That’s what made Wilson’s juxtaposition of shackles with silver tableware interesting, and powerful.

Composite image of a branding iron and a breastplate given to an Aboriginal man

In the same vein, the Sembl players who linked the above branding iron to the breastplate – because both are tools for labeling bodies – cast new light on the colonial practice of giving metal breastplates to Aboriginal people.

My (big!) point here is: Hipbone games and Sembl alike can create a safe space for people to explore differences. When identified, similarities form bridges across and clarify difference. Attending to relatedness in this way inspires understanding; and opens a channel toward reconciliation.