Techno Babble

I got a new phone last month and for the first time in my cell phone owning life it is up to date. That means I can download and use apps with ease, watch YouTube if I want, play Angry Birds (the Star Wars version is pretty cool), oh, and make calls, too. Having gone from a not-so-smart phone to a very smart phone, I can understand a bit about the technology divide that we have in our society. There’s a lot of talk about the growing economic chasm between the rich and the rest of us but not as much talk about access to technology.

The prevalence of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets has changed how we access information and entertainment. (Photo from Rovio.com makers of Angry Birds)

I read stories in Museum News about museums’ new apps,  QR codes in exhibits, podcasts and vodcasts, etc. and I’m conflicted by it all. I think adopting new technology is good and I think there are even more things we can use it for within the public history context than what is happening now. On the other hand, I think about the people who are being left out of the experience or the conversation because they lack the technology. I’m not necessarily talking about the people who don’t have a cell phone, tablet or computer. For the most part they’ve made a conscious choice in not acquiring what has become almost universal. If you don’t have the resources for a computer and internet access of  your own, your public library provides at least some help there. And according to recent surveys, the economically challenged are more likely to have a cell phone than a land line.

But, just because you have a cell phone doesn’t mean it is “smart”. Theoretically, my last phone was “smart” but most of the time it was pretty dumb. When I downloaded a QR code reader the camera on the phone (which is integral in reading QR codes) stopped working. And since it was a Blackberry, yes I’m naming names, the number of apps that existed for it were just a fraction of what exists for an iphone or android phone. So, even if I would have liked to see where that QR code took me or taken the tour made available through that app, I couldn’t.  This study by the Pew Research Center shows that while 85% of adult Americans have cell phones, only 45% have smartphones.  So accessibility means a lot more than it used to and we need to remember that technology is one means, not the only means, to an end.

There is a county in Texas building libraries without books and AAM’s Dispatches from the Future of Museums asks, what does this mean for museums? That made me think about a student I had in an intro to public history course I was teaching. He suggested that everything in archives and museums should be digitized and then we wouldn’t need to spend the time and money on ensuring people access. He also went so far as to suggest that if everything were digitized the items themselves would no longer be needed. (gasp!) I was gratified to see the fledgling historians in the desks surrounding him slowly start to poke holes in his reasoning. This was early in the course and even then they understood the problems with technology, its inevitable and ever faster obsolescence; its vulnerabilities; and the value of having the real thing available.

I confess, I am a book person. I like the printed page. Yes, I have used both Kindles and Nooks but I prefer my books not to require batteries. I am also an object person. I love that museums which have the resources put some or all of their collections catalogs online. Have you seen the new Winterthur online database? My Pinterest account is full of stuff I’ve “pinned” from museum sites to look at later, but in no way does the digital image of an object come anywhere near seeing the real thing.

So as we work our way through this changing technological landscape, we need to keep in mind the digital diversity of our audiences. We also need to make sure we are making a strong case for the preservation of the reality on which our virtual realities are based.

I’ve been making my way in the public history and museum fields for the past couple of decades and hold history degrees from Kent State and Slippery Rock Universities. Currently, I am Director & Chief Curator of the DAR Museum in Washington, DC and, on occasion, I teach museum studies, public history and history courses at Hood College in Frederick, MD.

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