Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What is the Fair Market Value of a Museum Job?

 Last week’s post on the Museum Sacrifice Measure generated a lot of discussion on Twitter, Facebook and in the Blog comment section. I recommend you go back and read that post before you read this one: I’m using today’s post to summarize and respond to some of the thoughts lobbed via social media, and since I’m jumping into the middle of the conversation it probably only makes sense read as part two.

A number of commenters point out that there are various categories of people, in museums or other sectors, who have “sacrificed” income for their chosen career, but are quite pleased with the trade. For example, when @NinaKSimon summarized the original post on Twitter ("Thought bomb from @futureofmuseums: does making salary sacrifices make museum staff more resistant to change?") @Mia_out observed "in which case technologists should be most resistant of all? But we're the ones pushing for org change." That kicked off the following train of thought, trying to untangle why some people are happy with the sacrifice they made (lower pay) to work in a museum, while others aren’t, and in a bigger sense, what constitutes a fair wage for museum work.

Today’s premise: Fair market value for a job is the compensation (cash + intangibles) an employer and a job applicant agree on when both parties are knowledgeable, willing and unpressured. (I adapted that definition from the fair market value of tangible property. If any economists are reading this blog, please tell me if there’s a reason I can’t flex those parameters to describe the sale of labor, as well.) So, what is it that leads some employees to feel that their compensation is, indeed, fair, and others to feel they are exploited and undercompensated?

I proposed to Mia that museum technology types are open to change because they want to move museums in the direction market forces are driving the field in any case: away from authority and control and towards openness and collaboration. I leave it to technologists like Mia and her peers (@StaticMade @micahwalter  I nominate you J) to comment on how much pay they feel they gave up to work in museum, and what they get in return for that sacrifice. I'm guessing it has something to do with joy of inventing a role that did not exist before, and of messing about with really cool content. (That is certainly the vibe I got from Micah's post on Medium about playing with the Cooper Hewitt API.) In any case, because their expectations for how technology can transform museums are in line with their employer’s, technologists have an accurate understanding of the job when they accept a job offer. They have have correct “knowledge” about what they’re getting in return for passing up higher pay in the private sector.

When I encounter the "who moved my cheese" reaction I cited in the post last week, it tends to be from museum staff who occupy traditional roles (curators and collections managers have both come up in the subsequent discussion). I suspect many people in these roles went into museum work with a vision of the job based museum norms that were anointed as “norms” decades ago. Or they believed in a semi-mythical version of museum work that was compelling and attractive but never entirely true. In either case, they thought they knew what they were getting into, but they were wrong. Either it wasn’t that way when they arrived on the job, or it was true when they started in the field decades ago, but the world has changed. They may feel they traded salary for non-financial benefits such as authority, or intellectual freedom to pursue their own research interests, and ended up something very different. As Mia noted, people in positions that used to work behind the scenes are now being asked to engage with the public on social media—“almost the opposite of the organization they joined.”  When people in this situation calculated what their position was worth to them, their knowledge was incorrect—the job isn’t what they thought it was.

What about the other factors that go into calculating fair market value? Jeffrey Inscho pointed me to a post titled “Familiar Goodbyes” on his blog Static Made in which he laments the high rate of churn among museum technology staff. He wrote “It's no secret the cultural sector can't compete with the private sector in terms of salaries and benefits. Many people make their lifeswork with technology not because they're passionate about hardware and code, but because it can be a lucrative profession.”  He goes on “once they've got a few years of success under their belt they jump ship for more sustainable financial waters. Who can blame them? I must admit I don't think technologists are isolated here, as I'm hardpressed to name another museum role (other than curator and maybe conservator?) that couldn't earn more outside the sector.”

Bingo, he hit the psychological nail on the head. People who feel they have a lot of options stay in a given job because they are “willing and unpressured.” Each time they pass up applying for a higher paying job outside the sector, or turn down an actual offer, they reaffirm to themselves that the choice they have made to stay in a lower paying museum job is fair—that it fits their needs and their values.

By contrast, when I was a registrar-cum-collections manager, at conferences I’d get together with fellow collections types over beer and we’d air our anxieties over what other kind of work we could get, if we decided to leave. What the heck would prospective employers make of “I was a collections manager for 10 years? (And no that doesn’t have anything to do with repossessing cars.)”

As a supervisor, more than once I had to manage the expectations of curators who felt certain that if they were working in a university instead of a museum they would have more respect, more autonomy and better pay. Also, tenure. Now, I listen to friends with university appointments lament how they are treated second class citizens until they get tenure (if they ever do), moan about their teaching load, and stress about the grants and overhead they are expected to bring in. Quality of life issues aside, there is a huge oversupply of qualified applicants for full time research positions in colleges and universities.  So a curator may calculate that the chance of getting the non-museum job that most closely aligns to his or her training is roughly on par with winning the lottery.

So, changing expectations + lack of other options = unhappy and resistant to change. Put like that it seems dead obvious. Is the observation even useful? I think yes. I think it suggests steps museum managers can take to renegotiate expectations about roles and help employees feel they have other options—and I’ll delve into that next week.

Other posts I see spinning off from this discussion:
--the dysfunctional economics of other fields (scientific research, law, medicine) and lessons they offer for the future of work generally, and museums in particular
--the legal, ethical and economic consequences unpaid labor (internships and volunteers)
--The effect of “sacrificial” work on diversity

Anything you want to add to the list?

Monday, September 29, 2014

Monday Musing: On the Front Lines

Dear Seb*,

Thank you for tweeting me the link to this article

Art gallery ad makes clear wish for an educated staff

about the Art Gallery of New South Wales replacing volunteers at the front desk with paid staff. I see they are looking for applicants with "significant education and a capacity for languages."

My first thought was--this is news?  Imagine that headline written the opposite way 'round. (Art gallery ad makes clear wish for an uneducated staff.) 

My second thought was--gah, maybe they are right, maybe it IS news, not only in Australia but in the US as well. Lots of museums use volunteers as front-of-house staff, and even when they are paid positions they are often poorly paid with modest prerequisites. 

Then all these other thoughts started pinging about inside my skull too:

  • Good! Using volunteers for necessary positions is yet another force driving down museum salaries.
  • Also, this recognizes the importance of front line staff. If a visitor has a bad experience when they walk in, they may never come back no matter how great the exhibits are.
  • What the heck is a "casual employee???" I  lobbed that Aussie:American lexicon question to Seb, who explained "casual" refers to an employee who doesn't get any benefits like vacation or retirement contributions. Wikipedia helpfully added they don't have guaranteed hours, either. On the other hand, the positions pay almost $30 US per hour--four times (Australian) minimum wage. 
  • Wait! Why was the volunteer program not working? Were the volunteers unqualified? Doing a bad job? If so, did the museum contribute to this situation by not providing clear expectations, training, and performance feedback? 
  • Ooooo. The volunteers are going to be ticked off. I wonder how many of them are (were) members and donors as well.
  • What if it were going the other way? What are the ethics of replacing paid staff with volunteers? (Here is one take on that.) 

So, thank you for sharing the link but honestly, I don't know whether to cheer or to stress eat Peanut M&Ms.

Yours from the future,


*Seb Chan, Director of Digital and Emerging Media, Smithsonian, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Thursday Thought: Curatorial Poetry

I just added Curatorial Poetry (@curatorialpoems) to my Twitter feed. Highly recommend. Here is an essay by Micah Walter (@micahwalter) on Medium that explains why and how he created this feed.  

The "curatorial poet" is a Tweetbot that randomly selects objects from the the Cooper Hewitt catalog records, and tweets the description field. 

Micah wrote the code during a coffee break one morning.


I love @curatorialpoems because it is a perfect metaphor for the serendipitous beauty I find in museums.

With all the work we put into creating the perfect experience, writing the perfect label, sometimes the most beautiful experiences are unintended.

Like the time I accidentally entered an exhibit at the Cantor Art Centers through a back door, and had the magical experience of puzzling out what the (unlabeled) exhibit was about. When I exited via the entrance, I found the introductory wall text that would have entirely spoiled the surprise.

Or the time I saw a (live) roach trundling about on a case of fossil insects, including a prehistoric cockroach, leading me to meditate on time, evolution, and persistence. (Also integrated pest management, but that thought was less uplifting.)

Or how, on a recent visit to LACMA, I was blown away by the light and shadows in the Art of the Americas gallery. 

We can't control everything. It's important to remember that's not only ok, its part of the magic of what we do. Beauty can arise spontaneously from any mass of content. Even catalog records.

So read what Micah says in his essay about the importance of messing about, silly thinking and trying "little projects." As he observes, "every once in a while they become real." And beautiful. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Proboscidian Preservation

No hints this time, just read the dang article.

Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Museum Sacrifice Measure

How much are you willing to give up to work in a museum?  How much did you give up to work in a museum?

I’m not talking about quality of life issues like relocating to a new city, having to explain over and over again, at parties, what a “registrar” is, or spending the day in a windowless cubicle tucked in next to collections storage. I’m talking about cold hard cash.

My head is filled with museum wage data because I’ve been proofing the text of the 2014 Museum Salary Survey (coming soon to the AAM Bookstore). Serendipitously, while taking a break from all those numbers, I read an article in the NYT also related to pay.

"Will Portland Always Be a Retirement Community for the Young?" explores the motivations that lead well-educated young people to flock to that city, despite the dearth of jobs. Synopsis: many people are evidently willing to sacrifice income for “vibe.” They choose to live on a barista’s wages, rather than find a higher-paying job that actually uses their degree, in order to enjoy “a politically open culture that supports gay rights and the legalization of marijuana — in addition to the right of way for unicyclists or the ability to marry in a 24/7 doughnut shop.”

What caught my eye was an attempt to quantify this seemingly irrational decision making. “David Albouy, an economics professor at the University of Illinois” notes the article, “has created a metric, the sacrifice measure, which essentially charts how poor a person is willing to be in order to live in a particular city.”

I think we need to work out a similar measure quantifying how poor people are willing to be in order to work in a museum.

There are a lot of highly educated, seriously smart people working in museums: among the salary survey respondents 90% earned at least a bachelor’s degree (compared to 30.4% of the general population). In some positions, such as director, curator, educator, well over half of museum workers have a graduate degree, compared to 10.9% of the general populace. I suspect that lurking in the back of the psyche of many museum folks is the belief that, given our smarts and the time and money we put into higher education, we could have chosen a more lucrative profession. (I know my dad not-so-secretly hoped I would become a doctor. When I took my first museum job, which paid $12,500 per year, he was, shall we say, less than thrilled.)

This sacrifice measure is important because it has a pernicious influence on many aspects of our field. It depresses wages, since we have, in effect, an oversupply of highly qualified people willing to underbid each other in return for the non-financial benefits of museum work. I suspect that low wages, in turn, contributes to a lack of diversity in the field. And I fear that the psychology of sacrifice helps create a culture of entitlement in which people feel that what they bought with the money they left on the table—the wages they could have had as doctors or lawyers or business consultants—is autonomy. Not everybody, clearly, but enough people that I run into this attitude, voiced or implied, at every conference I attend, at many of the museums I work with.

Some are people who have spent years (or decades) becoming experts in their scholarly fields. They’ve put in their time, paid their dues, and matured into positions where they can do work they know to be excellent. So they may listen to colleagues enthusing about the need for participatory engagement, crowdsourced input and the curator as facilitator and feel, quite reasonably, that somebody moved their cheese. Some, whether or not they themselves are scholars, went into the field to help create the kind of museum experience they fell in love with—a traditional experience of scholarship and quiet contemplation—and are frustrated to find that not everyone loves (or is willing to support) that tradition.

In the US, where museums do not, by and large, receive a majority of their budget from the government, we are subject to the same market forces as any other business. Even within the constraints of our mission, we have to provide an experience people are willing to pay for, preferably because they actually enjoy that experience, or at least because they are willing to support it as an abstract good. And yet, over and over I have conversations with people who feel aggrieved that no one is willing to pay them for what they want to produce. And resentful that they aren’t paid a wage they feel reflects their real value to society.

Now I wonder if I’ve misunderstood these conversations, to some degree. I wonder whether it isn’t so much that the aggrieved party feels that people in general ought to support museums whether or not they actually enjoy going to museums. I wonder if the complainants feel, to some extent, that they themselves have paid the cost of supporting museums they love and want to work in—paid for it with the sacrifice of wages they might earned had they chosen another path.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Monday Musing: Yet Another Pass at Virtual v. Analog Art Experiences

This Monday's 15 minute musing. 

Last week Amit Sood, director of the Google Cultural Institute, announced that 15 new museums were launching exhibits on the Google Art Project. That project is gaining serious momentum—the article reports that the Cultural Institute hosts:
  • 500 partners from over 60 countries
  • 6.2 million objects and artifacts
  • 19 million unique visitors from June 2013 to June 2014
  • 200 million page views in just one year
Sood has evidently picked up on a nervous vibe in the museum field about the effect of free access to high quality digital art from around the globe, because he goes out of his way to make the case that virtual visits are good for museums. After the Hamburg's Archaeological Museum posted its collection online on the Google Art Project, they received over  80,000 views in the first seven weeks, he notes, quoting the Hamburg collections manager as saying " "We believe these virtual visits will be followed by many real visits. Sood also emphasizes the potential for digital artifacts to supplement physical exhibits, mentioning that a digital copy of Wheatfield with Crows was “one of the most popular attractions” in a Van Gogh exhibit staged at the Musee d’Orsay. (Which would weird me out more if I hadn’t already read about the all-digital Van Gogh: The Ultimate Collection exhibit in Amsterdam—home of the Van Gogh Museum—that was such a hit. No, I take it back. That still weirds me out.)

“Open access,” concludes Sood, “means a larger audience and more recognition for artists, their artwork and museums."

I agree, though mostly based on faith, not proof. We are only beginning to untangle the relationship between how we engage with virtual and physical objects. That’s why I was heartened to come across this article inthe Yale Daily News. Researchers at the Yale School of Management set out to explore why we value an original piece of artwork more than an exact duplicate. (Or, as Susie Wilkening has asked, why can historical objects have cooties?) The results of the YSM study suggest the value we place on original art is due to “magical contagion”—the fact that people feel objects embody the essence of their creator in some way, that “A piece of the person is literally rubbed off on the object.”

The next question I hope researchers tackle is—do people value a high res digital reproduction of a fake Van Gogh less than a high res digital reproduction of an authentic painting? And does thinking about that make your head hurt?

Image from PC World

Friday, September 19, 2014

Futurist Friday: Cities of the Future

Just to switch things up a little, this week's Futurist Friday assignment is a listen rather than a read.

Jacob Morgan interviews Deb Acosta, the chief innovation officer for the city of San Leandro, CA, for his Future of Work podcast:

Cities of the Future: building the city of the future and driving innovation (1 hr)

Acosta shares how San Leandro is using high-speed connectivity to become competitive as a good place to run a business and a good place to live, as well as her projections of what cities will look like in the next quarter century. 

I think you will like her remarks on the importance of the arts in creating a livable city, (I kept waiting for her to say "museum"--but I guess San Leandro doesn't have one now since their History Museum & Art Gallery shows up on Google Maps as "permanently closed." Sigh.) 

I hope this podcast inspires you to look around in your own city/town/state for Acosta's counterpart. Austin has a chief innovation officer--so does Kansas City, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. (Here's one attempt to map these positions across the country.)

While these officers often emphasize technology, they are more broadly responsible for a futures-oriented approach with city planning: charged with identifying strategies that will help their community take advantage of cultural, economic environmental AND technological trends in order to prosper. 

I hope these CIOs appreciate the power of museums to help shape the future, and count the resources we bring to the table as one of their tools for change. But I suspect many of them do not. So if you have a Chief Innovation Officer (or the equivalent) in the area you serve, call them up, give them a tour of the museum, ask how you can contribute to their work. And let me know what they say...

Here's a video introduction to San Leandro to warm you up for the podcast:

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Refreshing the Blog Roll

Guzel and I took some time this week to review and refresh the CFM Blog roll (see right-hand column). These blogs are some of my “go to” sources each week for news and thoughtful commentary. In addition to checking URLs, deleting a few blogs that weren’t posting very often (or had changed focus), we added four, all great, and I recommend them for your reading list, too.

First, to inform your thinking about museums and social justice (the focus of the Alliance’s 2015 annual meeting) keep an eye on The Incluseum: a blog dedicated to encouraging social inclusion in museums. I met the coordinators of this site, Aletheia Wittman and Rose Paquet Kinsley, at their home base in Seattle last year. They use their blog to share resources (like the recent post on the ArtMuseumTeaching.com series on multiculturalism in museums); interviews (such as their conversation with William Harris about the release of the Alliance’s Diversity and Inclusion Policy); stories of inclusive practice at museums (c.f. Santa Cruz MAH’s pop up museums); and essays by academics and practitioners (such as Hannah Hong Frelot’s manifesto “Seven Ways to make the Museum System a Better Place for People of Color.”)

One blog favorite I’ve recommended before, but neglected, until now, to include in the roll, is Lucy Bernholtz’s Philanthropy 2173. (Its name is a nod to Woody Allen’s Sleeper, which is set in that year ). Lately, Lucy has been focusing on the ethical and cultural issues of digital data, including the implications of current events and musings on how data will change philanthropy.  It’s also worth browsing her older posts—a good library of essays and commentary on a range of topics in philanthropy: charitable giving, impact investing, politics & policy, not to mention her hilarious recurring feature, “Philanthropy Buzzwords.” (Which reassured me that yes, I can giggle when someone says “philanthrocapitalism.”)

AMNH MicroMuseum Session, from the Mooshme Blog
The last two additions to the list report from the front lines of museum practice. Barry Joseph, Associate Director for Digital Learning uses Moosha Moosha Mooshme to share his latest projects at the American Museum of Natural History. Games design, augmented reality, 3D scanning and printing—Barry has the kids in the AMNH Youth Initiatives mastering skills many museum staff will envy. Thanks to Barry, I understand how Minecraft is more than just a video game. It’s a whole virtual world in which you can grow trees. And dinosaurs. When I’m populating the “Museum Examples” sections of TrendsWatch for technology trends, I often peek at Mooshme to see what Barry is up to.

Ed Rodley of the Peabody Essex Museum shares his thoughts on a wide range of topics at Thinking About Museums. To get hooked on Ed’s commentary, just read his “Tilting at Windmills” series from last fall on immersion, experience and participation, and picture taking in the museum. Ed also reviews exhibits (like Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gallery One) and does a fabulous job of reporting out from conferences such as Museums & the Web and AAM—if you can’t attend, peering over his digital shoulder is often the next best thing.

I also hope you are following the Code|Words Project on Medium, an experimental blogging /publishing project that Ed instigated along with Rob Stein and Suse Cairns. Ed’s own recent contribution to that collection is “The Virtues of Promiscuity, or Why giving it away is the future,” urging museums to loosen our control of digital assets in order to spread our shared cultural heritage. “Survival,” he observes, “lies in the widest, most promiscuous spread of the cultural seeds we steward and create.”

Speaking of promiscuous ideas, these blogs are a pretty good way of spreading gametes of information across the web. I hope they fertilized thoughts that you, in turn, will share through your own social media, or at the water cooler.

And please use the comments section below to share URLs for your favorite blogs, and why you love them.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: (Un)Real Estate

#3D printing, Mars, Wikihouse

Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Privacy in a Watchful World TW 14 update

This is one of a series of mid-year updates on the 2014 TrendsWatch trends. I've already posted entries on Big Data, Social Entrepreneurship, the Sharing Economy and Robots, as well as updates on the Crowdsourcing and Philanthropy trends from previous editions of TrendsWatch.

Balancing the promise of big data, TrendsWatch 2014 looked at the privacy issues raised by our accelerating collection and sharing of data on every aspect of our lives. I’ve shared my utopian vision of how big data and data analytics could help museums measure the good we do for individuals and for society. Events in the past few months have demonstrated the height of cultural and legal barriers of making this vision real. Privacy, as Dana Boyd points out, is a set of cultural conventions, not an inherently technological issue, though technology amplifies the concern. As a society, we have a lot of issues to work through about who is responsible for guarding individual privacy and where we collectively draw the line.

Some of the most interesting privacy stories in the past year have been about the evolving role of government regulation. In May the European Union court of justice handed down a decision that reaffirms that in Europe, at least, that the right to privacy trumps the right to freedom of expression and the free flow of information. The decision came in lawsuit brought to the court by a Spaniard demanding that a Spanish newspaper and Google Spain remove articles and links to article referring to government repossession of his home. The court ruled that the newspaper could retain the information on its website, but Google had to remove links to the pages from its index. (Basically, the paper gets a pass due to its status as a media organization, but Google, which has intentionally positioned itself as a “data controller” rather than a media outlet, is not.) Here is a good condensed explanation of the ruling. Essentially it reaffirmed the historic “droit d’oubli” or “right to be forgotten,” as it applies to internet search engines. The information still exists, of course (both digitally and in hard copy), it is just harder to find. The US legal approach to privacy is very different, based on the protections on free speech established by the First Amendment. Here is a nice article in Forbes on how, and why the US and UK approach to privacy issues has diverged. 

But while the US may be the “wild west” when it comes to the free flow of information, even Americans freak out when it comes to the privacy of our kids. Last April, InBloom a $1M educational technology start up supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, shut down due to parental concerns over student data privacy. Parents and privacy advocates felt the company was collecting inappropriate data and did not provide credible evidence of their ability to protect access to sensitive information. The NY State legislature responded to these concerns by barring education officials from sharing student data with aggregation services such as InBloom. Now California is tackling the issue as well, and may become the first state to comprehensively restrict how K-12 student data is used (or misused) by tech companies. As this article illustrates, for people (particularly parents) to accept the application of big data analytics to information about what and how their kids are learning, companies have to:
Prove that data mining actually benefits individual students, helping to improve success at school
Reconcile their own profit motive with the public service aims of public education
Provide a cogent rationale for what data they are collecting, how it will be used and by whom
Demonstrate that they can protect the data they are entrusted with

These are lessons museums should pay close attention to, as we begin our own forays into the semi-magical realm of big data and data analytics. While museums are unlikely to be faced with legal obligations to “forget” individuals’ histories, we will certainly be subject to cultural and regulatory boundaries to what data we collect about our audience and how we use the information. The good news is, we are starting from a position of enormous trust—but we have to be careful not to blow that advantage.

Also of interest:

A story dramatizing what data can reveal about our life—also an exercise in absolute surrender of personal privacy. (FYI--I’ve pre-ordered my copy of the 2014 Feltron report)

An Infographics Genius Plots Out Another Insanely Detailed Year of His Life

For nearly a decade, designer Nicholas Felton has tracked his interests, locations, and the myriad beginnings and ends that make up a life in a series of sumptuously designed “annual reports.” The upcoming edition, looking back at 2013, uses 94,824 data points: 44,041 texts, 31,769 emails, 12,464 interpersonal conversations, 4,511 Facebook status updates, 1,719 articles of snail mail, and assorted notes to tell the tale of a year that started with his departure from Facebook and ended with the release of his app, called Reporter. Felton is aware of the symmetry between his self-tracking and the government’s snooping habits and saw his data as a test bed to see what kinds of narratives this content and associated meta-data could yield.

Video on 2013 report

Here is another project designed to draw attention to the need to control personal data

The incorporated woman
The Economist

To regain some ownership and control of her data (and other assets related to her existence) Jennifer Lyn Morone, an American living in London, decided to become Jennifer Lyn Morone™ Inc (JLM), registered like all savvy corporations in Delaware. And what started out as an art project—her brief as part of a master’s degree at London’s Royal College of Art was to “design a protest”—is now transforming her into a humanoid/corporate hybrid. JLM is an intriguing attempt to establish the value of an individual in a data-driven economy. As Ms Morone’s business plan describes it, JLM “derives value from three sources, and legally protects and bestows rights upon the total output of Jennifer Lyn Morone.” Those sources are the accumulation, categorisation and evaluation of data generated as a result of Ms Morone’s life; her experience and capabilities, offered as biological, physical and mental services; and the sale of her future potential in the form of shares.

Embed vide

The messy truth of the digital footprints we leave all over the web is humorously demonstrated by

What the Internet Can See From Your Cat Pictures
The Upshot, The New York Times

Your cat may never give up your secrets. But your cat photos might.  Using cat pictures — that essential building block of the Internet — and a supercomputer, a Florida State University professor has built a site that shows the locations of the cats (at least at some point in time, given their nature) and, presumably, of their owners. Owen Mundy, an assistant professor of art who studies the relationship between data and the public, created “I Know Where Your Cat Lives” as a way of demonstrating “the status quo of personal data usage by startups and international megacorps who are riding the wave of decreased privacy for all.”

Just to confirm that intrusive technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace:

Chinese scientists develop mini-camera to scan crowds for potential suicide bombers
South China Morning Post

Chinese scientists are developing a mini-camera to scan crowds for highly stressed individuals, offering law-enforcement officers a potential tool to spot would-be suicide bombers. But the technology has raised concerns over its implications for individual privacy and potential abuse by government agencies. Stress has a range of effects on the body. It can register as changes in heart rate, facial expression and body temperature, which scientists can already monitor from a distance. Officers looking through the device at a crowd would see a mental "stress bar" above each person's head, and the suspects highlighted with a red face.

Chicago's New High-Tech Lamp Posts Will Track Everything, Always
Business Week

Almost 50 years after Simon and Garfunkel sang “Hello lamp post, whatcha knowin,” the streetlights of Chicago will answer them. The city will start collecting data through Web-connected sensors installed on lamp poles this summer. In addition to foot traffic, the project will measure air quality, sound volume, heat, light intensity, and precipitation as a means to better understand the urban environment and ultimately make Chicago a safer, more pleasant place to live. Despite their innocuous appearance, the sensors have raised the ire of critics claiming personal privacy violations because sensors will pick up Bluetooth signals from smartphones, laptops, and tablets. Charlie Catlett, one of the project’s organizers and the director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data, contends that precautions have been taken to protect the cellphone data used to count pedestrians; researchers will drop the modem addresses that signals come from. The anonymous data will be made available through the city’s public portal for anyone to view and use.

And, from the bleeding edge of tech
GeekWire Radio: Brain-computer interfaces and the future of personal privacy

What happens when we start hooking our brains up to devices? Brain-computer interfaces refer to the use of sensors to detect neuro-signals from the brain. These signals can be used to help people control games, computer programs, prosthetics or devices. Howard Chizeck, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Washington, and UW graduate student Tamara Bonaci are investigating ways to preserve personal privacy as this new world emerges.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Futurist Friday: Stories for a Brighter Future

Yesterday I ran over and picked up my copy of the new science fiction anthology Hieroglyph from the independent bookstore Politics & Prose. (Short run--it's only about a mile from my house.)

Hieroglyph was inspired by a challenge that Michael Crow, president of Arizona State University (ASU), issued to science fiction author Neal Stephenson at a panel convened by ASU's Future Tense partnership in 2011. They began talking about why so much science fiction focuses on the dark side of potential futures and, as Stephenson tells the story, Crow "basically told me that I needed to get off my duff and start writing science fiction in a more constructive and optimistic vein.” 

One result of that conversation is Hieroglyph--a collection of science fiction that envisions future scenarios that might inspire us to make these visions come true: Not just  functional medical tricorders or quantum teleportation systems (though those things are pretty neat) but social and political structures needed for a better and more equitable world.  Today on Future Tense blog, Joey Eschrich introduces Hieroglyph and makes the case that the cultural aspects of scifi are cooler and more important than the gadgets. 

Eschrich reminds us that Michel Foucault defined technology as encompassing structures, systems of thought, and processes, not just physical items. The biggest disruption taking place in K-12 education, for example, isn't MOOCs or tablets or data analytics, it the realization that we need to move from an "assembly line" approach that treats students as interchangeable widgets and content as something that can be segregated into separate classes, to a technology of personalized, blended learning. The structure, culture and processes of education need to change--though these changes will indubitably be supported by the gadgets at our disposal.

Eschrich nails it when he says "the most important innovations that will shape our future are... the beliefs, values, communities, and relationships that will determine how we use them." The current surge in crowdsourced museum projects is driven by the ability of the web to recruit the assistance of strangers, but more fundamentally it reveals the the desire  of the public to be invited to contribute to our work, and cultivates the expectation that we provide opportunities for them to do so. Wikipedia, blogs, Facebook, Twitter are supported by (electronic) technologies, but by empowering anyone to be an author, and editor, they reshape public attitudes towards authority and overturn the culture and economy of traditional publishing. E-retailers like Amazon now account for nearly half of all book sales. In the past 20 years, there has been a 50% decrease in the number of independent bookstores in the US. Do I like the prospect of a future devoid of quirky, personalized neighborhood book dives? No. That's why I ordered Hieroglyph through Politics & Prose --paying over a third more than I would have via Amazon. While I appreciate the fact that technology can make goods like books more available and affordable to many people, I'm willing to pay a premium to invest in the future of my neighborhood. 

Your Futurist Friday assignment, with several options for upgrades:

  • Reach Escherich's article, and think about the most memorable science fiction you have read, watched or listened to. Beyond the gadgets, how is the world it depicts fundamentally different from the present? 
  • Check out the Future Tense project (a collaboration of ASU, New America and Slate), sign up for their newsletter and follow the Future Tense blog on Slate. They do good work.
  • Get a copy of Hieroglyph and dive in. If you want to discuss the stories, we can use the comments section below, to trade notes.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Superhumanity

#SensoryEnhancement #Eidos

Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Museum Hack: We Love People Who Don’t Like Museums

The peer-to-peer economy is great at uncovering unmet consumer demand and unused aspects of institutional resources. For this reason, I recently tracked down a young entrepreneur who has found, and filled, an empty niche in the ecology of museum experiences. The Metropolitan Museum of Art has a huge cadre of volunteers staffing a Guided Tour Program. I wanted to know, why would people visiting the Met, (or the American Museum of Natural History) hire an outside tour guide? What ‘unmet consumer demand’ paves the way for his business to succeed?

My name is Nick Gray, and I’m the founder of Museum Hack. We are a band of passionate, renegade tour guides in New York City.

Museum Hack wants to appeal to the cynics, the bored, the apathetic. They were the ones that failed to be impressed or to fall in love the first time around, and we’re here for the rebound.

We love people who don’t like museums.

I was one of those people. Until a few years ago, my attitude towards museums was one of ambivalence and boredom. About three years ago, a beautiful woman took me to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As she showed me her favorite works, I fell in love... with the Met. The history, the humanity and the excitement came alive for me.

On weekends, away from my day job at my family’s aircraft electronics business, I started to give free tours of the Met to my friends. I showed my favorite objects, and I spoke in plain English. My friends loved it. They told their friends, and their friends told friends, and soon I had over 1,000 people on my waiting list to join a free tour. I started dedicating more of my time to creating what would ultimately become Museum Hack. In April 2013, I left my job and began working on this full-time.

As my company and staff grew, so did the personalities behind our presentations. At

Photo credit: Museum Hack
Museum Hack, we hire individuals who love museums and who love art, artifacts and objects. Their backgrounds and strengths draw from numerous experiences - not just the art world. By using guides who are knowledgeable and also able to connect with the humanity in both the works and the audience, we are able to give our clients an experience focused on the delightful, the hilarious and the human in art - in all its sexy, juicy detail! The art, the artifacts and the objects blossom in front of our eyes, and the museum becomes a playground for provoking questions, ridiculous activities and an awful lot of laughter.

Our audience is the 20- and 30-year olds who went on museum field trips when they were kids, and maybe have taken a docent tour or two, but now they want a fresh perspective. This is the generation that can pull up Wikipedia articles on famous works of art faster than you can say the artist’s name. They are constantly bombarded by up-to-the-minute information and endless options for entertainment. They are obsessed with their phones and social media. We speak to that generation; we bring social media, selfies and photos into our tours and then we make them fun and unique.

Our success is built on word-of-mouth recommendations, a testimonial to the effectiveness of making the museum more accessible and exciting. One of my favorite comments was from a man in his mid-50s from Long Island, New York: “I’d rather go shopping with my wife than go to a museum, and I hate shopping. But then I took a Museum Hack tour and now I love the Met. We are going to come back to the museum together, and I love it!”

Museum Hack has created specialized thematic tours, in addition to our famous un-Highlights Tour. We also do bachelorette parties, birthday parties, corporate team building events, and family tours. The diversity of the tours has given us access to a broader audience and has helped shift the focus of our tours from didactic teaching to communal discovery.

PBS NewsHour on Museum Hack, with commentary by
The Met's Sandra Jackson-Dumont

Many museums that have great things to offer are looking for new ways to involve their communities. I think they could learn from the techniques Museum Hack has discovered that are effective at engaging our audiences:
  • We make art social. Our tours are small and customized to participants’ interests. Our goal is to help them interact with the objects on display and each other. Have an opinion!  Snap a selfie with what you like, and tell us why! 
  • We present research-based facts using polished storytelling skills, games, humor, and passion.
  • We use people’s love of social media. Encouraging people to use their phone cameras sharpens the way they look at objects. It’s a fatigue-fighter and encourages that they commit to an opinion and share it.
  • We walk fast. Instead of focusing deeply on three to six works in an hour, we visit more than ten, chosen by the guide, based on their passion.
  • We play. We use games to keep the energy level high and the intimidation level low.
  • We are sassy. We like spunk and personality.
  • We aren’t afraid to cuss. Tony Robbins taught me about using shocking language intentionally; he takes his lead from Sigmund Freud. Robbins writes, “Freud discovered that in every culture there are words which are considered taboo: words that are rarely spoken aloud, but, when they are, produce a dynamic transformation...”  We believe it also gives people permission to be themselves.
  • We switch up voices. Museum Hack tours often have co-hosts join the guide to add a second voice. Sometimes we even swap tour guides mid-tour, just to add to the energy and unpredictability. 
VIP Night Tour at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo credit: Museum Hack

A lot of people (like my former self) don’t love museums, or like them in a mild way, but not enough to actually go visit. And I suspect that their numbers are on the rise—that would be a bad thing for museums, and for our society. Good museums enliven our curiosity, feed us beauty and wonder. People who work at museums are experimenting with new ways to make people fall in love (with museums), but entrepreneurs working in the private sector have a lot to offer as well. Museum Hack recognizes that we have barely tapped the surface when it comes to opening up conversations about how to make museums more appealing to those who don’t like museums. We want to bring our methods and techniques all across the nation. We want everyone to love museums!

We are Museum Hack and we think Museums Are Fucking Awesome.

This post was written by Nick Gray with “lots of editing and editorial help” from Michelle Yee at Museum Hack.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Wordless Wednesday: Pandemic Futures

Ubiquitous Quarantine #UrbanSacrificeZone 

Follow the link in the photo caption to find out more. You can find more glimpses of the future (and links to associated articles) on CFM's Pinterest Boards

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

You Go First

"We're right on the edge but we need a little push 
Dancing on the tightrope wearing it thin 
Instead of closing our eyes and jumping in" 
--Jessica Andrews 

Sometime change is painful. Very painful. Giving up cherished traditions, abandoning the comforts of certitude, challenging assumptions about the way your life and career are going to play out—these things are not easy. That’s why in stable, comfortable times, only a small percentage of people, a minority who enjoy risk and change for their own sake, test radical disruptions of traditional business practices. And their innovations often fade away without a trace if their compatriots in the mainstream feel no impetus to adopt the methods they have pioneered.

But since we are living in a time of profound economic and social disruptions, many sectors are now paying close attention to the radical innovators in their fields. The alternative practices they are testing may turn out to be adaptations the field as a whole need to adopt in order to survive.

See, for example, libraries and journalism. The traditional library is being shaken up by e-books, internet search engines, cuts in government funding and economic stress on the communities in they serve. Print journalism saw its business model collapse with the rise of the internet, as advertising decamped to the web and more people look to social media for their news. Both libraries and newspapers have to experiment with new business practices, remaining true to their core functions (enhancing learning and ensuring access to information for all; investigative journalism) while questioning assumptions about traditional ways of achieving these goals.

That is why we see a new emphasis on library as a resource—bookless libraries, libraries with staff dedicated to serving the homeless, libraries providing co-working space. We see journalistic experiments like digital access by paid subscription (the New York Times), joint for-profit/nonprofit partnerships (Pierre Omidyar’s NewCo, the Guardian’s ProPublica), and Huffington Post’s strategy of exploiting free or low-paid labor and aggressive borrowing of content.

Here is another sector to watch for disruption and innovation: high-end dining. Restaurants have always been a high-risk sector marked by low profit margin and a high rate of failure. Recently it has been further challenged by everything from high-end food trucks (which can take advantage low overhead, low start-up costs and flexibility to test combinations of audience/cuisine/location) to quasi-legal, pop-up “supper clubs.” Two radical business innovations that entrepreneurial restaurateurs are experimenting with are:
  • Dining as a ticketed event. In 2011 Nick Kokonas opened “Next” restaurant in Chicago, eschewing a traditional reservation model in favor of presold tickets. If a patron doesn’t show up for the prefixe meal, they forfeit their money. You can even buy a season ticket –one seating each time the menu changes throughout the year—positioning the dining experience as more like attending the theater or a sporting event. This “restaurant ticket” model is spreading, modestly, as some high-end restaurants adopt this model, which transfers the financial risk of no-shows to the patron, facilitates responsive pricing (calibrated to the popularity of a given seating time) and, at least for now, generates buzz.
  • Participatory design of recipes. This weekend the New York Times covered Dinner Lab, a pop-up restaurant company that is premised around using intense, directed customer feedback to shape the menu for fine dining. Rather than the chef as impresario, implementing a focused, singular vision of excellence, Dinner Lab sees the chef as collaborator, soliciting the input of every diner in order to perfect their recipes. 

Museums can learn a lot by keeping an eye on other sectors, including libraries, journalism and restaurants. When I read about Dinner Lab, I hear echoes of the changing role of curators in museums, from expert teacher to moderator of exploration).  Dinner Lab also brings the chef out from behind the scene—putting him (or her) in the middle of the action, and making the chef’s “story” part of the dining experience.  This emphasis on process, and story, is also visible in museums as we create “open laboratories” and encourage curators to engage with the public via social media.

Sometimes watching others go through the difficult process of introspection and re-invention is a good way to ease into our own discomfort zone. And this gives you one more reason to read the food section in the newspaper—you might stumble across a recipe for business success, as well as tonight’s dinner.