By Nick Poole, CEO, Collections Trust
As Douglas Adams once memorably said, 'lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food'. The message is the thing, not the medium through which it is conveyed. But if this is true of print, will it not turn out to be equally true of 'Digital'? There appears to be some confusion about which 'Age' it is that we are living through. Some call it the 'Digital Age', and characterise the revolution as being one driven by technology. Others would have it as the 'Information Age', regarding the technology merely as a tool through which the rich information layer of daily life is exposed, manipulated and enhanced.
There is something gloriously oxymoronic about writing a blog for a website section called 'Sustaining Digital' when digital is not a thing in itself which can either be sustained or preserved. It is a portmanteau term covering a range of activities, technologies, business models and skills which focus on transcoding information into binary and transmitting it through wires and circuits.
It is a peculiarity, perhaps, of the pace of postwar technological development that for some 'Digital' is still new, and filled with potential, while for others it is yesterday's idea. Wired magazine runs a regular feature called 'Wired, Tired and Expired'. Digital, in the culture sector at least, appears to be all 3 at the same time. There is a fun game you can play (for those of us without social lives) of trying to figure out where someone is on this journey when you meet them for the first time.
But if we can agree at least that these developments emerge, disrupt and are then assimilated into the mainstream, then it seems likely that in a few short years from now, we won't be using the term 'Digital' much at all, in the same way that we seldom use 'Atomic' and 'Electronic' has come to acquire an ironic cyberpunk charm. And if this is the case, I thought it might be interesting to speculate about what we will be using instead, and what that might mean for museums, archives and libraries.
There are, of course, the current contenders - 'mobile', 'social' and 'cloud'. Of the 3, two are about atoms and electrons, and one (social, in case you were wondering) seems to be about people. In Mia Ridge's wonderful phrasing 'technology changes, people don't', and certainly, the dizzying growth of social networks and the integration of the 'social graph' into e-commerce and e-Government seem to point towards a fundamental development in technology which serves a basic human purpose.
There are two things which prevent me from suggesting we're heading into a 'Social Age', though. The first, most obvious, is that we have alway been in a social age. Social networking has been the foundation of most of human experience, and it is telling that Dunbar's number seems to hold as true for Facebook as it does for tribes. In many ways, then, the social graph represents the normalisation of technology into existing patterns of behaviour. It is not so much a radical departure as a reappropriation of technology for a very basic human purpose.
The second is that the 'social' experience online is a peculiarly stylised one - as though a software engineer who had never attended one had been asked to code a dinner party. Facebook is less a 'social' experience, and more like a virtual equivalent of Rear Window, allowing users to peer into a strange public/private hybrid rendition of our lives. LinkedIn is us at a job interview, and Google+ gives rise to the highbrow joke 'I thought it was only Dante that liked to put his friends in Circles'. While social certainly extends the museum, library or archive's arsenal of engagement and partnership with its audiences, it remains a different kind of relationship from a truly 'social' one.
So if 'social' is an expansion of 'Digital', and if both are in the process of assimilation into mainstream culture, then where might we be going next? The answer, I suspect might come not from technology but from the far greater context of global economic and social change.
The next two generations will have grown up against a backdrop of geopolitical, social and personal change. They may be experiencing and interacting with this brave new world through screens, but it is the world, and not the screen that matters.
Contrary to the Daily Mail fantasy of feral, socially-irresponsible children roaming the streets and ram-raiding JB Sports on their stolen mopeds, and at the risk of social stereotyping, many children and young people are reaching political and social maturity early (often of necessity) and taking their social responsibilities very seriously indeed. I suspect that the low levels of political engagement reported among the 18-25 demographic are far more to do with a disaffection with the way we do politics than with politics itself.
The challenges facing the next two generations are significant. Restore faith in the integrity of the state, adjust expectations of personal wealth and progressive growth, sustain the momentum of tolerance and integration, adjust to a career based on flux and uncertainty, find innovative, practical solutions to environmental change and the scarcity of resources. That's on top of the usual concerns of health, education, security and welfare. And somewhere in this mix they will need to begin to find answers to profoundly important questions of transparency, equality and social justice.
In this world of 10 years' time, bandwidth will be ubiquitous in industrialised nations, and convergence will have delivered consumer-oriented devices that allow the physical and digital worlds to become one and the same - information will become physical, the Internet of things will be all around us. The 'Digital' Agenda will be the agenda, and 'Digital Culture' will be 'Culture'. Sensors will make things responsive and intelligent, enabling people to encode the millions of actions and interactions of their daily lives and interpret them as data.
So it will not be the 'digitality' of this age that counts. It will be the connectedness of things and people, and they ways in which technology allows us to create and manipulate those connections that counts. I have sought high and low for an expression to describe the age we're heading into, and I can find no better formulation than that it will be a Connected Age - in which people are connected socially, digitally, personally and politically in a kind of augmented communitarianism.
And in a Connected Age, our serious 18 year olds will become serious adults, taking responsibility for the construction of a transparent, accountable and just society - which even if they fall short of the Utopian ideal, will help correct some of the iniquities they will have inherited.
So what would a Connected society mean for museums, archives and libraries? Everything. Connection is what we do - showing people the global implication of their personal context, demonstrating that cultures across the world share more in common than in conflict, empowering literacy in the fullest sense - linguistic, informational and cultural - to equip this future generation with the tools both intelligently to navigate the abundance of information and to use it to achieve social justice.
The idea of museums provides a Connected society with depth, validity and context - it makes their advance incremental rather than cyclical. The library is a place in which people become connected and which, critically, can help overcome the increasing risk of disenfranchisement and illiteracy. The archive provides a fund of prior knowledge upon which to build future ideas. All 3 domains play a vital role in a society that seeks to use connection to make itself both more stable and more prosperous - which is why the more enlightened emerging economies are busily investing in cultural infrastructure as a token of economic and social development.
When we think of the challenges which confront museums, archives and libraries today, they are not simply challenges of marketing or presentation, funding or political profile. Nor are they challenges of how to 'go digital'. They are challenges of relevance - our fluency with social media will define the confidence with which we step into the Connected Age. Our comfort with shared authority and interpretation will define the extent to which we empower or disenfranchise our users from creating and exploring their own connections. Our commitment to integrity and transparency will define the extent to which the coming generations will see us as part of the problem or part of the solution. Our deftness with open business models will define whether our future customers understand, and are willing to pay for, the value we can add.
Progress is rarely smooth, and predictions are usually wrong, but as we wrestle with the questions at the heart of Digital, it might well be worth looking up every now and again and thinking about how what we do today will decide whether we have a place in tomorrow.