Static Made

Written + produced with love in the City of Champions.

 

A Week With Techno-Archeologists

McMoon's

I’ve spent the past week in Mountain View, California, hanging out with a group of Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project (LOIRP) hackers who are working out of an abandoned McDonald’s on the NASA Ames base.

For more than five years, LOIRP technologists (or techno-archeologists, as they prefer to be called) have been reverse-engineering analog tape drives and developing new software in an attempt to unearth some of the first images of the moon that were taken by unmanned lunar orbiters in advance of the manned Apollo missions of the late 1960s.

Drive Thru

Upon entering the building (affectionately called “McMoon’s” by those who work within it) for the first time, I was greeted by familiar architecture. The drive-thru windows, menu light boxes, stainless steel counters, fiber glass tables and the ghosts of corporate brand ephemera all remain. However now they coexist under a jolly roger with a literal mountain of vintage 2-inch tape reels that contain trapped data, refrigerator-sized Ampex tape drives, an army of Mac workstations and a seemingly endless supply of analog tape decks, monitors, cables and soldering supplies.

McMoon's

A recurring theme running through my discussions with LOIRP hackers was a concept they coined called techno-archeology. The success of LOIRP hinges on the group’s ability to free image data housed within the obsolete medium of 2-inch video tape.

In order to do this, they were required to excavate and replicate the processes and hardware utilized by technologists more than 50 years ago. We’re talking about an era in which the world’s largest super computer housed a fraction of the power our consumer laptops now possess. One might think today’s computing power would make this task an easy one, however the team is operating completely at the mercy of five-decades-old tech.

The Earth's Moon

The LOIRP team at McMoon’s is doing some amazing work and I recommend anyone interested astronomy and technology check out what they’re up to. Big thanks to Dennis, Keith, Austin, Ken and Marco for hosting us.

If you enjoyed the photos in this post, you can see the full set over on Flickr. For now though, I’ll close with an image that isn’t mine. This Earth Rise image is one of my personal favorites of the lot recovered by LOIRP. Seeing this image in this ultra-high resolution makes me long for outer space with childish abandon. It also makes me realize just how small our place in the universe is.

Earth Rise

Permanence and Perfection

Technology is a fickle thing. By its nature, the digital world is evolving with such inertia that aspirations for the notions of perfection and permanence are becoming futile.

Digitally speaking, perfection is a thing of the past. The work and artifacts we make now must be flexible enough to deal with whatever the shifting landscape throws at it, whenever it throws it. The idea of shipping a perfect, feature-persistent product is an antiquated analog ideal. It is now a common occurrence that shortly after you ship a project – weeks, days or even hours in some cases – technology side-steps and you’re left with a versioned-out product teetering on the brink of obsolescence. We must now work with the goal of shipping a viable product that can maintain relevance with small, iterative and ongoing modifications along the way. This needs to happen rapidly and in perpetuity. A perpetual beta, if you will.

Permanence, too, is a fleeting aspiration. The more technology is involved with a thing, the shorter half-life the thing will have. It’s cave paintings vs. websites. When it comes to lasting, cave paintings win. As cultural technologists, we need to acknowledge this and build platforms that evolve and improve over time, not projects that are pixel perfect in this fleeting moment.

Having this discussion in the museum context is especially difficult. Our institutions are rooted in scholarship, history and permanence, and the iterative nature of the digital world we live in now often aggravates these ideals. This won’t always be the case; we just need a little alignment. And that will come with time, education and increased collaboration across departments.

Museums will sustainably serve their missions well into the future. Our institutions will remain focused on preserving and sharing culture for centuries to come. These foundational elements will not and should not change. Our methods of harnessing technology to tell those stories, however, will need to become iterative, pliable and evolutionary in order to meet the modern demands placed squarely on their shoulders.

The Forgotten Web →

An eye-opening realization from Tyler Fischer:

As a webmaker, I want an open web. But as someone who has never experienced that, I don’t know where to begin in making it.

This piece is a must-read for anyone working on the web who remembers the days of blogrolls, hand-rolled static HTML sites and hit counters. Fischer makes some excellent points toward the end of the piece when he talks about what the future open web must be in order for it to succeed. We can’t long nostalgically for these things again, we need to build forward, making an open web that’s easy and exciting to use for the geeks, but also the passive web users who have become the digital tide.

The important step forward is that, while users own their data, they do not need to know what to do with it. The future open web must be easier to use than the current social web, and knowing what to do with your own data cannot be a prerequisite.

Amen.

The Singular Museum Experience

There have been several articles published in recent weeks assaulting the role technology has grown to encompass with respect to art museum visitor experiences. All of these pieces take a similar tack: mobile devices distract us from thoughtful looking; visitor photography of artworks does nothing to improve memory; when it comes to museum tech, less is more; something something the sky is falling.

These articles all share a nostalgia for and vehement defense of “the museum experience.” They propose that museums are supposed to be quiet contemplative spaces where people can reflect and intellectualize around objects without distraction or interruption from the outside world. Anything deviating from this scenario is inherently negative. While this may be true for some, it is undoubtedly not the case for others.

The fundamental flaw with these arguments is that they make the false assumption that a singular, one-size-fits-all museum experience ever existed in the first place. Considering that there is, and has been, only one correct way to experience a museum is extremely narrow-minded, experientially short-sighted and ultimately antiquated.

I would argue there is no such thing as “the museum experience.”

Perhaps now more than ever (thanks in part to technology), we are in a position to craft meaningful experiences for a wide array of museum-goers and open up these experiences to those who might never set foot inside our institutions. We can certainly honor traditionalists with minimalist thoughtful looking, but we should also provide the tools, access to information and social interactions that allows the born-digital generation to have relevant and meaningful experiences. I like to think of this approach as employing technology that disappears.

I also wonder if this issue is particularly time- or era-sensitive. In episode 11 of Museopunks, Beck Tench said something I feel is pertinent to this discussion:

We are living in two worlds now. The thing our grandchildren will find most quaint about us is that our generation makes a distinction between the physical and the virtual.

Because we’re living in this unique and transitional time, our task as museum technologists is complicated. We need to offer a multiplicity of experiences along an extended spectrum of digital comfort levels. If we don’t, our future constituents will move on, leaving museums behind for experiences that are more relevant and impactful for them. It is possible to honor the past while embracing the future, but it takes institutional open-mindedness and a willingness to acknowledge that, as visitors, we all need different things from our museums.

Sunday PG Love →

A nice profile of some of the recent work coming out of the CMOA digital media lab. I’m super glad Dimitry, Two Tap Labs and David D’Agostino got some love in this piece. I feel like our department is starting to hit its stride.

Oh Snap! The Daisy Chain

After presenting on the topic of open authority at MCN a few weeks ago, several people approached me afterward and have emailed since with questions about the technology daisy-chain we employed to make the Oh Snap! project happen. Since there seems to be some interest in this I thought it made the most sense post the documentation here on the site.

In retrospect we probably could have fine-tuned this process a little better, however we were working with some very tight timelines. This prompted us to approach the whole project as a rapid prototype, which influenced our decision to ship a minimum viable product at launch. If you have questions or need anything additional, feel free to get in touch via Twitter or email.

Wufoo

We utilized Wufoo for the web-based submission forms on the site. The service is nice because there is very little code involved and you can customize the report structure on the back-end. Each artwork in the show (there were 13) had it’s own dedicated landing page and, thus, it’s own independent submission form. That’s how we were able to attribute submissions to their respective artistic inspirations.

Elastic.io

Once a user successfully submitted a photo, we needed to get it to a workstation in the gallery so an attendant could review and approve the image for printing/publishing. Note: Early on we explored the idea of making the process fully automated, but ultimately decided to implement a human-centered approval process. In order to automate the process of getting submitted photos from Wufoo’s servers to the gallery workstation, we signed up for the beta of Elastic.io, a web service mash-up generator that could port Wufoo data into a Dropbox folder structure.

Dropbox

I like to think of Dropbox as the nerve center of the internet. I’ve used it for so many things and it’s saved my bacon on numerous occasions. We installed Dropbox on the gallery workstation and created a layered file structure that looked something like this:

Oh Snap folder structure

When a photo was submitted via a Wufoo form, Elastic.io would ship the image and corresponding metadata to the appropriate Dropbox folder on the gallery workstation.

Humans

Because we didn’t know what kind of content we were going to get, the project team felt it was necessary to implement human authentication along the way. We staffed the gallery during all open hours with an attendant. As images came in via the Wufoo/Elast.io/Dropbox relay, the attendant would review the files. If they didn’t violate the project’s terms (99.9% didn’t) the attendant would rename the file to reflect the participants first name and last name (important), print the image, and hang it in the gallery.

After the image was hung, the attendant would drag the file into a different Dropbox folder labeled "Approved." This action would trigger the second half of the daisy chain.

IFTTT

If I could french kiss a web service it would be IFTTT. We created a IFTTT recipe that watched the "Approved" folder in Dropbox. When a new file was added to this folder, IFTTT would send the image up to WordPress, the platform that supported the project’s website, and create a new post with the image.

WordPress

We set up our WordPress instance to title the image posts with the file name, which was the participant’s first name and last name (created by the gallery attendant earlier in the process). In order facilitate the IFTTT posts, we had to create a new user with full admin rights on our WordPress back-end specific for those posts. This is a minor thing, but it might make some people/orgs nervous to give a robot full admin access.

Mailchimp

One goal of this project was to foster a community around the images, so it was important for us that the relationships with participants didn’t end with their submission. We wanted those who submitted to attend the parties and educational programming associated with the project, but also to come visit their image in our gallery.

Each week during the run of Oh Snap!, we uploaded the published participant data from the previous week into a list hosted by Mailchimp. We created a campaign that would fire off an email to all new participants letting them know their image was hanging in the gallery and on our website. We also included a free pass to the museum so they could come check it out. Additionally, we would send the occasional note out to the master list announcing related events and programming.

Wrapping Up

As I said in my talk at MCN, I’m frankly surprised all of this worked. It was akin to a digital Rube Goldberg experiment and could have fallen apart at any point in the process. It didn’t though, and we ended up with an interesting project that will continue to inform the way we approach visitor engagement at the museum for the foreseeable future.

Defining Open Authority in the Museum

The following is a talk I gave at the Museum Computer Network conference in Montréal on November 23, 2013. It was part of a panel called Defining Open Authority in the Museum.

Defining Open Authority - 1

Hi. My name is Jeffrey Inscho and I guess my part of this session is to show how Open Authority can or can’t impact museum practice. Earlier this year, my museum – Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA – dove in headfirst with our first foray in open authority: a co-creative photography project we affectionately called Oh Snap! Your Take on Our Photographs.

Notice I said “project” and not “exhibition.” We’ll get back to that.

Defining Open Authority - 2

Before we get into the details of this particular project, I think it’s important to begin with a bit of institutional context. The image you’re looking at now is from 1896. In it you can see artworks being delivered to the museum via horse-drawn wagons. I think this image says a lot about our institution. On one hand, it’s just that: an institution. And not only that, it’s one with more than a century of institutional tradition – processes, workflows and operations that have been ingrained into the fabric of the place. I don’t think CMOA is alone in this respect, and I’m not speculating on whether this is good or bad. It’s a fact and I’m annotating it as an accepted truth.

On the other hand, my museum also has aspirations of achieving relevance in the lives of non-traditional museum-goers (READ: “millennials,” that highly-coveted holy grail of demography). Part of this means operating in sync with – not in competition against – the fast-moving world around us. Reimagining our programming so it resonates with people on their terms and on their turf. That’s where open authority comes in for us.

Defining Open Authority - 3

In the fall of 2012 – almost exactly one year ago, come to think of it – we were presented with an interesting challenge by our director. A slot was made available in our Forum Gallery for an open-ended experiment. The goals and specifications set forth for us were this:

  1. Create an experience where visitors would engage with real artworks in a personally meaningful way. We had to use collection objects; This was an insistence of our director.
  2. Make new connections to our target demographic (20- to 40-year-old), particularly by connecting real-word & online experiences.
  3. Open up the museum to true dialog with the public and have that public actively impact content/display in the gallery.
  4. Be clear that this was not an exhibition in the traditional sense, but that it was an experimental project.

And with those four directives in hand, a cross-departmental, cross-hierarchical group of colleagues were off to the races.

Defining Open Authority - 4

The working group tasked with making this project happen was diverse and broad. It included not only technologists like myself, but also museum educators, editors, art handlers, curatorial assistants and representatives from our registrar’s office. We met regularly over the course of approximately six months to wrestle around with our ideas, explore the adjacent possibilities, pursue what we thought were invigorating concepts and ultimately refine those concepts into a cohesive and full-featured project.

On the other side of all this ideation, we emerged with a concept we were all very excited about. The premise for our proposal was this:

  1. We would utilize 13 recent acquisitions from our photography department as the launch pad for the project. Decisions about which works would be made democratically by the working group and we would display these objects in the gallery.
  2. We would invite visitors to respond to these artworks in a visual or photographic capacity – via their smartphones or computers. We would use these responses and feedback to inform the presentation in the gallery during the run.
  3. We would make every attempt to bridge the digital and physical components of the project, from event programming to the submission experience. It was important to us that this project have real-world impact.
  4. And finally, we would be institutionally okay if this project flopped. We were aware it was a substantial risk and we were (somewhat) cool with that.

Defining Open Authority - 5

All of this sounds super lofty and conceptual and full of museum-speak. We realized that for this project to succeed, we needed to accurately and effectively communicate the concept to our audience. Strike that, our co-creators. Our partners.

We settled on a short and memorable name: Oh Snap! We employed bold colors and fonts in the graphic design. We made it as easy as possible for people to participate. We threw a fabulous launch party (This image comes from a light painting photo booth at the event).

And like most tech startups, we made a video trailer. It’s two minutes long, and quite funny, so I’ll show it now.

I would be remiss if, at one of the museum sector’s largest technology conferences, I didn’t touch on the underlying technology that supported this level of interaction.

We built a responsive website that served as both the project archive, but also as the submission vehicle. This was mainly an accessibility decision, but it also had budget implications because CMOA had the skill set to develop internally. Once we realized that the major mobile OS’s were loostening up to allow mobile browsers to access camera rolls, it was a no brainer. No app needed.

Defining Open Authority - 8

The rest was akin to a digital Rube Goldberg experiment. We daisy-chained several 3rd party services to facilitate the submission queue, approval process, website upload and participant notifications. Wufoo fed into Dropbox fed into IFTTT fed into WordPress fed into Mailchimp. A lot of variables were at play and I’m frankly surprised it worked.

Defining Open Authority - 9

But it did and the result was a participatory, open authority-infused project that blurred the digital and the physical. I’ll walk you through some installation shots now.

Defining Open Authority - 10

Defining Open Authority - 11

Defining Open Authority - 13

Defining Open Authority - 19

I guess you’re probably interested in the results and how we determined whether or not the Oh Snap project was a success.

During the 2 ½ months of the project, we received a total of 1,264 submissions. All of them, except for one, made it onto the walls of the gallery and the website. Some of them are really great. You should definitely have a look for yourself. They’re all archived on the project website: ohsnap.cmoa.org.

41% of all participants fell into our target age demographic of between 20 – 40 years old. That was by far the largest demo group, so I think we were successful in reaching the ever-elusive millennials.

The lion’s share of submissions came from the western Pennsylvania and tri-state area, but we did receive a good number of submissions from Europe, South America and Asia.

We gave all participants (via email) a free pass to the museum to come see their work in our galleries. Approximately ten percent of those passes came back to us. That may seem low, but when compared to the average return rate of 3%, we were very happy with that percentage.

Defining Open Authority - 20

I’ll leave you with this image. It’s one of many hand-written notes from visitors we received during the project. Validation like this was important to both the Oh Snap working group as well as the museum, and it went a long way in affirming to us that we made something that meant something – not only to us, but to a community of participants who actively partnered with us to make the thing happen. We couldn’t have done it without the community.

Defining Open Authority - 21

Thanks for listening. Everything I showed and said today can be found on my site at this link, and if you have questions please do holler on Twitter or email. Thanks!