Appy Clappy

elliott_computerThis is an amazing photo of an early computer being delivered to Norwich County Hall. It’s kind of part of my heritage, as Norwich is my birthplace. Some of my family’s data may have been stored on that computer. Also, I’ve done quite a lot of work on digital strategy for heritage organisations, at policy and delivery level, including a big piece of research to inform the Heritage Lottery Fund’s shift to digital. My involvement in digital culture began when I contributed to the Tate’s plans to develop its first website c.1995. It continued with leading on some large digital projects at the British Library. Then it really took off, as social media was exploding, when I founded Flow in 2006. I was driven by fascination by the potential for museums and cultural organisations for expanded international networking, for deeper contextualisation of knowledge, for intense dialogue. Also, I was interested to see how much much museums would pick up on the potential to galvanise people around Citizen Science, crowdfunding and campaigns. In general, and still, I’m interested in digital because I’m a keen supporter of the Commons as a broad approach to economic and ecological problems.

So, with all this enthusiasm, some people have asked why I’m working less on digital culture projects and spending so much time these days on ecological projects, promoting action for trees or environmental conservation. I’ve thought about it. There seem to be four answers:

Disappointment: My excitement about the potential for digital culture has waned a little as I’ve seen fewer ambitious collaborative projects be sustained and more superficial, ‘app-y clappy’ projects get attention. There are still some excellent and useful digital projects out there but I’m a bit disappointed that they aren’t being used as much for deep contextualization, citizen action and future learning as I had hoped.

So, what keeps me interested is the question: how can culture online be interpreted and remixed for ecosocial change, and how can public cultural organisations lead this process?

Jaded consumer: As a consumer of digital culture, I’ve passed through the phase of being utterly amazed to access so much, to often taking these riches for granted. Sometimes I realise again how amazing it is. For example, if I want to learn any found song, I can identify it through Shazam, listen to it on Spotify, compare various chords on Chordie, then record my version on Soundcloud. 20 years ago I cycled through a book of 100 buskers tunes until I got bored and laid my guitar down for years. But mostly I forget this amazement.

So, how can we appreciate and value the Cultural Commons more, as part of the process of using it for good?

Dissonance about urgency and posterity: Museums (etc) exist to preserve heritage into posterity. Their work is slow and detailed, and generally assumes continuity of human civilization. Museums are also suffering from austerity cuts, so the some of the fittest survive through attractive and fashionable programming and marketing, and/or by accepting sponsorship by unethical sources. However, civilization faces the unthinkable challenge of runaway climate change combined with ecocide. Massive and urgent action is needed in the next four years to mitigate these to even have a chance of human survival. Alongside digital strategy, I’ve developed and communicated tools about sustainability as a cultural shift, believing that cultural organisations are well placed to lead this, rather than simply as a task of reducing operational footprints. Finding a way to turn these insights into paid work in the cultural sector has been a challenge.

So, how can the museums and heritage sectors galvanise and collaborate to promote urgent action towards ecological innovation and conservation?  How can they pool and leverage funding towards these aims?

There’s less work available in which I can use my digital expertise: My strengths as a consultant have been working on strategies for public services, that open up access to public assets and build support through mass participation. I’ve delivered strategies for HLF, English Heritage, Natural England/AONBs, MLA, ACE, BFI, several consortia of national museums and of regional museums, The National Archives, the Collections Trust, university museums and many more. However, there have been very few advertised contracts in such work for the past two years. I have been busy in the past 18 months, but mainly in evaluating smaller digital and outreach/learning projects, and doing user testing or market research. I’m happy to do more of this work but it doesn’t stretch me intellectually, and I deliver better value when my brain is extended.

So, where should I be looking for these brain-stretching opportunities in digital commons and in shifting culture to sustainability, and with whom should I be collaborating?

These are questions for myself, as they’re too big and difficult to expect others to answer them. But I’d be very grateful to hear any suggestions you may have.

We laugh at the picture because the computer is so massive. It reminds us how far we’ve come in miniaturizing and mainstreaming ICT infrastructure while massively expanding data and content. However, in terms of understanding and tackling environmental sustainability, I’d contend that we’re way behind even where we were in digital progress when giant computers were being delivered on lorries. Rather than see digital strategy as my past expertise and environmental sustainability as my emerging expertise, I want to find ways of integrating the two. The potential of digital culture is just there to be tapped to help us shift our culture towards bioempathy, the Commons and collaboration for good.

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