Tuesday, December 05, 2006

You're the One that I Want

From the technology blogosphere:

Tim O'Reilly wrote an excellent commentary on the "economics of disaggregation"--basically, the idea that new technologies (digital cameras, iTunes store) are allowing users to unbundle content (like an image or song) from traditional packaging (roll of film, album) so that they get just the content they want. And, surprise! People prefer purchasing unbundled content to the more traditional alternative.

Seb Chan of fresh + new, the blog from the Powerhouse Museum in Australia, ran with this idea to comment on the impact of disaggregation on the way that visitors use museum collections available on the web. He discusses the fact that many online museum collections are set up in ways that impede this kind of personalization, because the content is embedded in Flash or other "locked" applications. There are positives and negatives to disaggregating collections content--you lose the opportunity to develop rich "expert narrative" experiences that weave everything together, but gain the opportunity for users to plug in wherever works best for them.

I'd like to approach this concept from a physical, in-museum perspective. All museums are models of aggregated content; heck, we're the boxed music sets of physical content. You wade through the galleries, hunting down your favorite objects/experiences/tracks. In museums like mine, the flow is narrative, and you have no choice but to follow our path through the objects. Imagine if you had a CD player that only allowed you to play an album from start to finish. Some music purists would applaud such efforts--but most of us would go out and buy a new player.

The question of whether or not to aggregate is closely linked to the most exciting--and most complex--element of exhibit design: the creation and dissemination of the meta-structure, the story, of the exhibit. There's a difference between organization and aggregation; libraries organize their content, museums aggregate. Some museums are breaking down this barrier by allowing visitors behind the scenes to explore their collection storage facilities--organized, but not aggregated.

At its best, the meta-structure gives the content in an exhibit a soul. It connects the dots. Think of the difference between Disneyland and other theme parks; Disney creates much more than a collection of rides by layering on the story. There are many exhibits--and museums--that would devolve into reductive, context-less spaces without the meta-structure.

I'm not advocating for total disaggregation, but the model of meta-structure development most museums pursue--aggregation by one individual/company--represents a particularly arrogant view about the ownership of meaning. I'd like to see more museums move towards more flexible aggregation. Let people make their own "mix CDs" of museum content. Take the bubble project to the next step and put two objects near each other with a blank space in-between for the two objects to "have a conversation." Create a physical version of like better and spit out a story about visitors based on which objects they prefer.

The real question is how to do this affordably and practically in a physical space. The inclination of objects at rest is to stay at rest, and few museums can do anything approximating the shuffling and mash-ups possible on the web. The inclination, if one chooses to go in this direction, is to move towards disaggregation, which is simple, as opposed to re-aggregation, which is complex.

Aggregation is often a very personal thing. When you make a mix CD for someone, you are stamping your meaning and connections onto that content. When you buy into someone else's powers of aggregation as a user, you are accepting that inconvenience with the expectation that you will receive some value from the particular slant of that person's meta-structure. It's important for exhibit developers to examine what parts of the meta-structure around objects/ideas are valuable, and what parts are wasteful, confusing, or self-serving. And now, perhaps, to also ask which parts are flexible enough for re-interpretation by others.

10 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Let's argue for a bit. I like arguing.

Isn't the goal of an exhibition in a science museum like mine to educate? If so, does allowing the user to disaggregate the exhibits in the exhibition enhance or impede the learning experience? Wouldn't disaggregation lead to disintegration of the meta-structure? Is that a good thing, especially if that meta-structure is [arrogantly but effectively] created by people with more knowledge than I? (knowledge of particle physics, molecular biology, the science of networks, etc.) Can I be trusted to "get" the point if I assemble my own narrative? Is conveying the point the raisin detra of an exhibition?

Take another example: a history textbook. (Ignore for the moment that history textbooks are pathetically jingoistic and overly simplistic, and for the most part arrogantly aggregated by conservative voices.) If a student were allowed to proceed through history willy-nilly, would the overall narrative of the history be lost? Can we depend on the user/reader to retain an understanding of causation and long-term cycles, if sampling is encouraged?

MP3 singles are chipping away at the idea of the album; fantasy sports are eroding the concept of teams. Are albums or teams important? Letting people create their own experience is interesting, yes, and it's integral to the 2.0 ethos, but maybe it's assuming too much to think that such an anarchic process will have more positive effects than merely adding to our narcissistic "me, me" culture. The problem with letting people do what they want is that people are not nearly as noble as we hope.

"It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried." -- Churchill

Your conservative Museum 1.0 voice,

Nina Simon said...

Alright, Nik. Let's roll.

First, let me put aside the fact that I mostly agree with you. I'm not arguing for disaggregation--I'm arguing for more voices in the aggregation, or alternative aggregations, of content.

But that's not nearly as interesting as the things we could argue about. Do you think that guests really "get" the point of most exhibitions? I think that most people ignore the meta-structure of an exhibition because they are so focused on the individual object/kiosk at hand. It's hard enough to design a single interactive or label such that guests will consistently "get" that one thing. But to make the "correct" connections between things? Evaluators, relieve us from this ignorance, please...

In my mind, there are two ways to combat this. One is the way my museum has moved (and I am entirely focused on at work)--towards a highly narrative, immersion experience where there is an explicit story and themed environment that does that linking for you. This is the Disney model (and I mean that in a good way). You create a highly staged experience where the lighting, the sound, everything makes you look in the right place at the right time, feel the right way at the right moment.

It works. It's powerful. It's also extremely limiting and undemocratic. I love the Museum of Jurassic Technology in LA, but some people hate it. It has a very specific meta-structure shtick. So the other option is to accept the fact that the time and energy put into designing meta-structure is not necessarily having measurable, consistent successful outcomes--and choose to abandon or rethink the approach to meta-structure.

I think the problem is that most museums are unwilling to take the Disney/Spy/Jurassic model and go all the way with meta-structure. It feels too theatrical and editorial. However, they still want that editorial upper hand, so they create weak meta-structures that are confusing for guests to follow and don't add a lot of value to the experience. They're like haunted houses with the lights on. And if you're going to do that, why not let the guests move the skeletons around?

Anonymous said...

I agree with your argument for more voices in the aggregation and all. Nothing new there. But I'd like to step back. One of the strengths that exhibits can offer is a lack of linear structure that itself is a form of dis-aggregation. That is, many exhibits are set up with an open structure that encourages visitors to move between parts of the exhibits that most interest them (e.g. with which they most connect). True, many exhibits don't do this and instead have a linear structure, but that's the choice of the museum not the requirements of Exhibits. The fact that exhibits have been, can be, and often are non-linear suggests that exhibits can be considered leaders in this whole 2.0 dis-aggregation thing and don't need to be considered followers. (And even with a non-linear structure, Story still applies.)

Your thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Maybe the problem is the terms we use? Does "narrative" connote a story arc, with characters, an arc, a beginning and an end? Must a meta-structure conform to this meta-meta-structure? That's the theme I'll obsess on in this post, though it may be completely wrong-headed.

Your current museum has a subject that lends itself well to a traditional narrative, as John Le Carré's pet gold-plated greyhounds show us. Bully for you! Take a theoretical exhibition on global warming, for another example -- what should I get out of it? "An Inconvenient Truth: The Walkthrough" would convey to me a) that global warming is definitely happening, and b) that there are some clearly defined actions I can take to lessen my carbon footprint. Meta-structure achieved! I got it; that wasn't hard. (Can someone please build this exhibition for us, post-haste?) But finally, take one of our current exhibitions, on the nature of visible light -- is there a dramatic story to be told there, besides the history of the visible spectrum's deduction? Or should I just learn about some interesting properties of light, exhibit by exhibit? Is the overall meta-structure "visible light is fascinating and discrete?"

Then again, is our venerable "Light" exhibition a less successful experience than spies? Maybe. (What does "success" mean, Nik?) Maybe it's the difference between a textbook and an educational novel. Both have their merits. I'm agreeing with SBS here, too -- non-linearity does not mean non-understanding.

But are we so sure that exhibitions as currently designed are failing so miserably...? (Evaluators, assemble! Like Voltron!) Might I receive the meta-structure, if it's done well, without even knowing it? Months later (or days, maybe), I should recall the content and the crux. That I don't get every point the developer intends me to get is not so important -- people are different, we learn differently, we observe through our own rose-colored, theory-laden glasses. And that's the arrogance I think you were referring to: developers expect, even demand, that participants "get" everything there is to get. Can that ever happen?

Back to you in the studio, Nin!

Nina Simon said...

Great comments. A couple of my thoughts.

I love stories--both as a reader and as a user/experiencer. I almost always learn more from contextualized, or even artificially story-ized experiences, and have read some interesting reports to suggest that school kids will learn more--about any topic--when it is presented in the framework of a story. Of course this can become highly subjective and questionable. "An Inconvenient Truth" as the story of the little penguin who lost his habitat would probably raise some eyebrows for pulling at heartstrings instead of presenting science. But! I think there are many more complex, nuanced stories that can be told with even the most un-emotional content. Tomorrow I'm interviewing Elisa Giaccardi, who is running a project to create a virtual museum of ambient sound. The idea is that people will record sounds from their environment, tag them, share them, and be part of a conversation about the positive and negative noise evolution around us. There's a story there with emotional content, but it's a story that involves lots of different stakeholders while being accessible to average folks.

I think science museums are often a fabulous model of dis-aggregated experiences. Because they rarely deal in stories (unlike history museums), context is not always necessary or desired. When I think of favorite science museum experiences, it involves interacting with single pieces--Sea of Clouds, Chain Wheels, anything with bubbles--not themed exhibits. Interesting, Nik, that you started with an argument for expert aggregation but then moved to support for disaggregated experiences in your own museum.

Is one better than the other? Well, Spy certainly is financially doing very, very well. I think the original designers did a great job of capitalizing on the fact that espionage is fundamentally about stories--both real and imagined. Science and art aren't about that--most of the time. But I do think that from a financial perspective, story promotes brand, whereas disaggregation dilutes it.

The original article I referenced was about the idea that in a world of disaggregation, people will select individual preferred experiences and shed the aggregating overlay, which they see as inhibiting. I think the easiest thing museums can do to support people's consumer impulses to this effect is to provide great navigation signage, open floorplan, easily accessed and clearly organized exhibits. It would be an interesting experiment to take the elements in a largely disaggregated museum (I'm thinking of the small Science Discovery Museum in Acton as a good testbed size) and move them around. Do people care that the sound pieces are grouped together? What if you grouped things some other way, by size or coolness or...? And then what if you let visitors change it? Imagine how much fun or nightmare it would be to have a time every saturday where people could come in and move exhibits around in a space like bumper cars. I'd love to hear the arguments about which ones should take priority spots, which ones should be together.

I know this sounds unpractical. But I think disaggregation of content--and the shift from being a content provider to a platform for content generation--means going much further. It means a MAJOR change in how museums function, market, fundraise--users and visitors have very different interests/needs.

Most museums won't want to take this risk--most probably can't. If museums want to keep a strong brand, they have to resist this disaggregation to keep people focused on one kind of consistent institutional experience available at that location. But maybe there are opportunities in large museums already out there to do some smaller experiments with this stuff to be able to take advantage of the change that is out there and play with it.

Story in non-linearity? Would love to hear more about that. Could be a great way to keep institutional brand while introducing lots of different concepts outside of didactic narrative frameworks.

Anonymous said...

Whoa, whoa, whoa, Miss Lippy -- I'm pro aggregation. And just because an exhibition doesn't have a narrative arc doesn't mean it's disaggregated. Is thematic grouping (aggregation) may be enough of a story, no?

To summarize (for my own benefit), we've both been agreeing that aggregation (telling a story) is essential. Your aim is to get end users the flexibility to use museum elements to tell their own stories. They already do that in their own imaginations, but you want a more permanent, tactile method?

Your fun/nightmare "exhibit bumper cars" scenario would be an interesting experiment to run, but in the end, what would it reveal but other aggregations? And subjective aggregation at that. (Now, if visitors could reaggregate exhibits virtually at home, that might be feasible. Doesn't The Tech do that? Does it work?) Tim O'Reilly's commentary, upon which we originally founded this discussion, is about people unbundling . . . to re-bundle.

When I visit a modern art museum, I usually feel the frustration of a lack of story. Art museum signage is didactic, the grouping usually linear, but a narrative rarely shows through. At home, I can copy&paste digital images of the art I like into one story, if I want to (but I'm too lazy). AT the museum, though, why should my narrative trump theirs? Just because I understand my story, because it "works best" for me? If I take the time and effort to learn the expert's story, aren't I getting a deeper experience with the art works? The more I know about art hiSTORY, the better my art viewing experience. While my personal aggregation may make me feel better, how does it increase my knowledge? Are you also arguing for my sharing my personal aggregation with others, to enhance their experience? How am I, then, any different from the experts currently designing aggregations?

I'm arguing that some aggregations are indeed better than others. Are you taking a postmodern approach and saying that all aggregations are equal? OK then. (Commie.) :)

...it's just that some are more equal than others.
If another point of yours is that storytelling in general should be more prevalent, I agree. It's our oldest form of education, and one that doesn't get enough emphasis nowadays.

I think that story promotes brand in a brand receptive to stories. All education is receptive to stories. So let's tell stories.

...but what is a "story?" And what's wrong with an expert's story? We'll always have bias.

Nina Simon said...


Nice summary. This is good fodder for my discussion with Elisa later today. Ironically, with regard to story I am a total elitist--and that's part of why I struggle with when and whether to "let it go" to the masses.

But here are a couple of thoughts on why letting users reaggregate in museums could be worthwhile:
--As you point out, many museums are frustratingly low on story. If there's no story now, maybe letting users impose their own story on the content will be a kick in the pants to get museum folks to feel that it might be valuable to their audience to think about story in exhibit design.
--I think that users reaggregating can highlight the gaps in exhibit design--i.e. the expert stories visitors want to hear. What if, instead of reaggregating, visitors just got to suggest themes or narratives they'd like to see explored?
--Reaggregating frequently could tell different stories about the same content. I would love to see an art exhibit with a narrative overlay about the historical context of the art, and then see the same pieces with a narrative about the technical considerations int the use of medium etc. Telling multiple stories with one set of content is a way to get to broader exposure of the meaning of content.
--Aggregating on your own, I would argue, DOES enhance learning. You are forced to make distinctions and connections, to do more with a piece of art or an interactive than read the label, do the do, and walk away. Think about interior design. I live with eight people, all of whom have some internal feelings about good design. Every time someone moves a couch there's a big debate about usability and appearance. I'd love to see people approach museum stuff with the same kind of concern that it be "right" for them.

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