Best of the Week

‘Put technology on pause - and learn what it’s for’

This week Elon Musk, the Tony Stark-esque tech titan, founder and CEO of SpaceX and co-founder and CEO of Tesla, decided he wanted to try and fix the media.

In a series of tweets, Musk, angry about media coverage of his company, said he wanted to start a website that will let users rate news organisations and the journalists who work for them.

"The holier-than-thou hypocrisy of big media companies who lay claim to the truth, but publish only enough to sugarcoat the lie, is why the public no longer respects them," he tweeted.

"Going to create a site where the public can rate the core truth of any article & track the credibility score over time of each journalist, editor & publication," he added. "Thinking of calling it Pravda ..."

Media credibility is not necessarily a problem that demands a technical solution and it’s certainly not an issue that can be addressed overnight through the establishment of a proprietary website owned by a billionaire. It’s not even a problem, depending on who you ask.

Technology may have given us the tools to build our bubbles and distribute fake news but it’s inherently an issue about our behaviours, our biases and our beliefs.

Musk’s rant is emblematic of much of what you hear from tech leaders and digital gurus. Technology is held up as a saviour, technology companies and their founders are held up as the people with all the answers and everyone seems to be in a race – a race to build the new thing, a race to own it, a race to ‘digitally transform’ their companies into technology companies because they’ve lost sight of what they actually do and who they actually serve.

‘Digital transformation’ is one of those phrases that has come to mean so little over the last few years yet everyone is saying it. I am allergic to the words and the idea so it was incredibly refreshing to speak with Loic Tallon the other week and find that he also struggles with that particular phrase.

Tallon is the Chief Digital Officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art – aka ‘The Met’, physically based in New York. I say physically because Tallon and his team have done something quite incredible at the Met. Through a partnership with the Wikimedia Foundation, they have extended access to the Met’s collection beyond the walls of the museum. More people (ten million a month) now experience The Met collection on Wikipedia than on metmuseum.org (two million a month).

"I'll say it hundreds of times, we're not a technology company. We don't have to be a technology company to be a great company." Tallon laughs a bit when he says this over a Skype call with me last week.

Tallon is coming out to New Zealand for the CIO summit in June. The conference is billed as the ‘foremost gathering of CIOs (Chief information Officers) and IT executives in Australasia’. Generally, these people come from the world of business where there is probably much talk of digital transformation and many PowerPoints that contain quotes from Steve Jobs.

I hope they’re ready to have their minds stretched by a guy from the world of arts and culture. Because it’s not just what Tallon has done at the Met that’s interesting but the way he’s gone about it and the humble, insightful and calm approach he has to all things digital.

Throughout our conversation Tallon constantly comes back to two things – constantly being guided by, and in service to, the Met’s 147-year-old mission and his focus on how people behave and how that’s changed. At no point in our conversation does he attempt to dazzle me with technobabble or position himself as someone who’s come up with an idea all by himself or invented something entirely new.

He speaks frequently about what they’ve done at the Met as simply observing the changing world around them and, in wanting to serve the mission and remain relevant, using existing technology to keep up with changing behaviour.

"Success isn't using augmented reality. That is not what success looks like. Success is about better fulfilling the mission, connecting people with knowledge, creativity, and ideas."

‘We're not a better museum if we say we're a digital museum. We're a better museum by saying, "Yes, we're being very thoughtful about how we serve our mission in the 21st Century.’

It is almost revolutionary to hear him talk about a lack of control. I frequently encounter businesses and organisations that seem obsessed with ownership of content or creating new, proprietary platforms or apps when perfectly good solutions already exist and the notion of control over your content is dead.

The open access policy means anyone can use the collection – hundreds of thousands of Wikipedia volunteers use the images every day to illustrate articles. Artists, mathematicians and students are taking the collection and data and doing new things with it.

Tallon is both delighted and pragmatic about this:"It's interesting when I think about the idea about control. We don't control it anymore. That control has gone whether we acknowledge it or not. People can write about the objects and art collection and publish it online and present that however they wish, whether we give them permission to or not. The images of our artworks were already online before we put them online ourselves.’

Simone Seagle is a web and educational software developer who has taken items from the collection at the Met made available through the open access policy and animated them. She has brought to life the idea that eyes follow you in an online portrait gallery and she’s made Kandinsky’s ‘Violette’ even more playful than the original.

"Sometimes I wonder what the artists would think if they saw what I was doing. I hope they would appreciate it, but I'll never know. And perhaps it doesn't matter—that's the beauty of what The Met has done with Open Access. The art that was just for a few now belongs to all, and those with the will and imagination can play with, modify, and augment these works as they see fit."

There’s a measured dignity and pace about Tallon that seems befitting of a guy who’s been given charge of one of the world’s greatest collections of art and cultural objects and set it free. He is in equal measures respectful of an historical institution and the changing times. He is in no rush to reinvent a wheel but instead wants to work out how to use the ones at hand in service of a lofty mission interpreted in a way that ensures the Met is an ever present force in a world where so much of what we do has changed.

"I'm a big believer that technological progress could probably stop for 5 years or 10 years - it would take us that long to learn how to use the current technologies we have available to us, well." says Tallon.

I said it was a refreshing conversation earlier and it really was because it so directly opposes some of the vast arrogance and frantic need for speed you encounter when you’re absorbed in the world of digital technology.

Sometimes I feel as if a lot of technology is for technology’s sake and not in service of loftier goals or indeed, the lives of the people who are meant to use it. Perhaps we need to slow down, perhaps we don’t need to be in race to digitally transform, but instead, spend some time with what we do have and work out what, if any, mission it’s serving.

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