What We Talk About When We Talk About Digital

Empty Seats CC-BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user Benson Kua
Empty Seats
CC-BY-SA 2.0 image by Flickr user Benson Kua

So I’m missing Museums and the Web, wondering about MuseumNext, and planning for MCN. So. Much. Conference.

Realizing that the window to submit proposals to MCN was fast drawing closed, I decided the time had come to dare an Ignite talk. One of the my personal highlights of the conference, these short presentations are no walk in the park. You’ve got five minutes, and 20 slides. The slides automatically advance every fifteen seconds, and there’s no do-over if you get lost. It’s work to pull off a good one. But a good one is great, and a great one is sublime! And having survived doing a Moth-style storytelling session at AAM last year, I figured it was high time to step up submit something.

But what to talk about? Ignite-style talks are great for pithy provocations more than lengthy discourse; short stories rather than novels. A tweet from Seb Chan had been stuck in my head for the past couple of days.

And since he was sad, and I was thinking of Ignite talks as short stories, the two ideas turned into a Raymond Carver story and I wrote down “What We Talk About When We Talk About Digital.” Unpacking that title is going to take some time, and it’s unclear where it’s going to end up, but that’s why I started blogging. I’m quite excited too!

The idea
What I told MCN I’d do is present a freewheeling meditation on how we frame the problem/challenge/opportunity of “digital”, and how those frames can limit us. I’ll poke at the tensions and conflicting definitions we use for “digital” and wander into the anthropological to posit that in these days of an Internet of Things (where there are more things talking teach other on the Internet than there are people) Alfred Kroeber’s idea of the Superorganic might be applicable to the digital realm.

I know I want to build off my CODE|WORDS essay on the virtues of promiscuity, in parts. That’s a whole ‘nother topic, which I’ll have to explore. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing I’ve done in a long time, but it’s not quite there. That was one of the points of CODE|WORDS; to be faster, looser, and more discursive and less worried about polish. That said, it’s only about 80% of what I think it should be.

The meat of the piece will be to problematize the way we talk about “open” instead of “free”, “content” instead of “objects and ideas”, and “engagement” instead of “relationships between people”. There’ll be more as I explore the idea, but that’s what I’ve got for now. Hopefully, you’ll help me fill in the missing bits?


    1. I’d love to talk, Matt. You around for Drinking About Museums on 4/15? If not, DM your email address and we’ll find another way. I’m thinking about going to MN myself.


  1. I appreciate the specificity of “objects and ideas” rather than content as Seb Chan suggests. It furthers the discussion, after all vocabulary is the path to wisdom. Your discussion could lead to clarity even if it also creates more complexity when we call things by their “real names”.


    1. Clarity, complexity, calling things by their “real names”. You pretty much summed up this whole post in many fewer words than I took to write it. 😉


  2. Ed,

    Your last paragraph reminds me of something that came up in a class I was teaching last week on writing interpretive themes. At first, students were using a lot of abstract nouns, with the result sounding more like corporate-speak than an attention-grabbing theme. I encouraged them to be more concrete; more colloquial. As a result the themes improved. Perhaps a similar criticism could be levelled at discussions around “content” and “engagement”?


    1. I think so. Words like “content” and “engagement” are so useful precisely because they’re so abstract and slippery. You can throw them around and let their meaning change from moment to moment to suit. Great for ducking accountability, but less good for really measuring what matters.


  3. And it turns out that Jeff Inscho had a similar reaction to that tweet of Seb’s. He’s working on a strategy document at the Warhol and wanted to find another word for “content.” Check out his post at http://staticmade.com/not-content-with-content/ and then check out the Warhol’s Digital Strategy on Github(!) This quote is money:

    “This is a really great example of how operating openly and transparently can positively impact institutional philosophy. This minor modification made our approach much stronger. “


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