To change or to change

Just over half a decade ago, the collaborative digital technologies came into Cultural institutions, but at the same time they went through a resistance stage.

“.There is nothing so stable as change”
Bob Dylan

Fragment of Flying-Fish as large as life, illustration (author unknown, 1765-1775). Belongs to the Pope Brown Collection of South Carolina Natural History.

Fragment of Flying-Fish as large as life, illustration (author unknown, 1765-1775). Belongs to the Pope Brown Collection of South Carolina Natural History.

Just over half a decade ago, the collaborative digital technologies that grew out of the expanding universe known to us as the Internet were still terra incognita for cultural management. The initial response to the advent of so-called “social networks” was indifference; as though they were simply a passing phenomenon that only affected the virtual world. The first reaction took place in press and communication departments, with the incorporation of a generation of young professionals who were familiar with the new tools. Cultural institutions started linking to social networks such as Myspace, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, Vimeo, Pinterest and Google Plus on their websites, but at the same time they went through a resistance stage that is part of any process that threatens an established modus operandi.

The reasons for this resistance are very diverse, but one of the major ones is ignorance of the existence of a theoretical corpus that has tried, for at least three decades, to develop and apply a set of ideas and practices born under the sign of the digital revolution. It could make us think that humanist disciplines have been caught off-guard, revealing a technophobic bias that swings between viable arguments and obstinate short-sightedness. And we may also wonder about the promises and utopias of cyberculture in a period of interconnected systemic crises. The fact is that cultural institutions –with varying degrees of conviction, knowledge and enthusiasm– have entered a stage of acceptance of information and knowledge technologies as tools that are essential to their evolution and survival. And while the initial indifference stemmed from a limited vision of the influence of the Internet, and resistance was a foreseeable stage within a process of change, unconditional acceptance can end up turning into non-critical fascination. Technophobes and technophiles are the two extremes of a sterile Manichaeism in which many obstacles make it difficult for open, critical, dialoguing reason to make itself heard. The term “complexity” is one of the most recurring semantic fetishes, and it is easy to forget that “complex” refers, above all, to that which cannot be thought of independently. Hence the need to try to understand the deeper nature of the change we are living through, based on the awareness that we are in the midst of the maelstrom and we do not yet have enough perspective to discern its enduring consequences.

The first thing to bear in mind is that the change is not exclusively technological. New technologies are not neutral: they can speed up the more liberating aspects of collective intelligence, promote transparency, and regenerate democracy, but they can also favour the more sophisticated mechanisms of power and control. The cultural field is facing challenges that demand a high degree of commitment and generosity from all of the agents involved. They require an ongoing effort to avoid exclusive dogmas, sectarian opinions and inert attitudes. The factors that come into play in the new scenario include three core aspects:

  1. The entity formerly known as “audience”. The financial crisis is clearly smothering cultural institutions. While drastic cuts to public funding are certainly creating an alarming scenario, the drop in “cultural consumption” reflected in economistic, quantitative indicators cannot just be explained by dwindling visitor numbers in museums, theatres and cinemas. Audiences are mutating. The emergence of increasingly active and participatory audiences, with their own preference and legitimisation criteria, is another key factor for understanding what is happening. Perhaps the figure of the prosumer and the rediscovery of the amateur, have now become part of a new rhetoric, but it is also clear that the great call for participation over the past few years is fuelling all kinds of claims, including the demand for access to the means by which to produce, share and reproduce content.
  2. The dilemmas of prescription. Museums, art centres, and cultural institutions in general, are “prescription machines” that have a powerful influence on what audiences must know, admire, celebrate and enjoy in different fields of culture. This monopoly-like situation based on “authorised” knowledge remained more or less unchanged during the final decades of the twentieth century, but the emergence of digital technologies and the political, financial and social changes that marked the start of the twenty-first century are transforming “prescriptive” styles and practices, and initiating a debate that has only just begun. It may be obvious that this crisis in the prescription status quo exists, but the deeper consequences and dilemmas of the phenomenon have not yet been analysed. It is obviously not about getting rid of filters, or of the need to prescribe, but about striking up a fruitful conversation between old and new types of prescription, bringing into the discussion territories for which there are as yet no conceptual or formal maps that can be considered definitive. The awareness that “no one knows everything, everyone knows something” does not automatically entail a ruthless confrontation between authorised and non-authorised forms of knowledge. It may be a doorway, one of many, to accepting the need for bridges large and small between different ways of creating, producing and distributing knowledge; knowledge that will not only be obtained through data management on a mass scale.
  3. Investigate and innovate. The diagnosis culture, which we are all prone to, has to be accompanied by a culture of solutions. Out of the many definitions of “innovation” that proliferate right now, we could choose the simplest: to innovate is to find the solution to a problem. This implies being able to research and to make mistakes, to review practices and methodologies, genres and formats, models of organisation, thematic lines, etc, and to be able to carry out “prospecting” activities in order to discover possible future scenarios based on present trends. It is what numerous European cultural institutions are starting to accept, in different stages and at different speeds depending on each context, as reflected by the growing number of conferences and activities that attempt to discern the cultural landscape of the next few years. However, if there is no capacity to innovate –that is, to find solutions to the challenges of a world in constant transformation–, if there is no capacity for planned response to internal and external changes, then cultural organisations and institutions will lose the opportunities that are offered to them, and will find themselves adrift and directionless, subject to inevitable change.

Conclusions? All provisional. Certainties that melt away, the speed of change and resistance to change, as constants, and pessimism as a luxury that will have to be postponed for better times.

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  • Ignasi | 17 October 2013

  • Noelia Muñoz | 16 June 2015

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