Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence - image via

If you’re familiar with SETI you’ll know it’s the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence, one of its projects is to search for signature transmissions from deep space that might indicate the presence of alien life. You might also be familiar with the SETI@home project which is an Internet-distributed computing project that uses idling computers to process data and search for those tell-tale signals. While the project has not succeeded in finding any extraterrestrial intelligence, (or has it?) it has succeeded in demonstrating that (free) distributed computing power can match the largest (very expensive) supercomputer processing power.

There are a number of critiques of the SETI project (“really? you surprise me…”), based on the fact that in order to discover intelligent life transmitting at the radio frequency, it (or they) would have to be in a very narrow window of technological advancement to be something that we would recognize – probably 200 hundred years. A century earlier and we wouldn’t see anything, a century later and we probably wouldn’t recognize it. It’s a very egotistical view of any life other than ours.

(I know what your thinking… where’s he going with this? Is he one of those alien nut jobs? … Possibly, but that’s another blog post…)

Over the last year couple of years, I’ve had the opportunity to talk to museum boards and senior staff on the subject of technology, particularly institutions who are figuring out what their strategy should be. Its a confusing world if you’re not embedded in it – constantly in flux. Sifting out what’s important from what’s not, takes time and it really matters. Which is why [insert shameless plug for Horizon Report Museum Edition] is so important. If you’re a member of the “experienced” generation you’ve probably missed most of it based on the assumption that it was “passing fad”; if you’re a digital native, who cares where its come from?, you take for granted that it will change and you will just go along for the ride. If you’re an institution who needs to invest its technology dollars wisely, it’s crucial that your investment in money and people hits the right spots.

Trustees are nothing if not direct and when I talk to them they always ask why do we need this? Why do we need to be thinking about mobile? (For example). There is plenty of solid reasoning in the Horizon report that makes the case, but Trustees need something more “elevator pitchy” so this is where I pull out my SETI reference. One of the critiques about SETI, possibly attributed to Carl Sagan, is that SETI is looking for smoke signals while the aliens are using mobile phones. This is quite literally our emerging challenge when engaging with our visitors. (As I get older, kids appear more and more alien…).

One of the broad paradigm shifts that the networked environment has given us is a move from stationary to mobile. I don’t just mean we’ve gone from a land line to a mobile phone, I mean a cultural shift of consumption of entertainment, education and communication. Take movies. It used to be that you had to go to a particular location at a particular time to consume a movie, then recording came along and consumption became asynchronous but still static, now with services like Netflix and Hulu on your iPhone, its access anywhere anytime. Music has followed the same trajectory, beginning with live performances only, asynchronous consumption and now with services like Spotify, its full access anywhere anytime. But note, that as each mode has transitioned, the previous mode is still available – we still go to movies and gigs. James Gleick in his book The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood eloquently summarises as:

Hardly any information technology goes obsolete. Each one throws its predecessors into relief.

Its clear that television (as we currently know it) is beginning to transition into relief, even though television advertising is increasing, percentage ownership of televisions is declining. As television hands over the baton to the networked environment, its interesting to note what cultural expectations it is handing over. Television programs used to be highly-curated packages, broadcast from one to many: sitcoms, dramas, hosted talk shows, etc. Now they are highly participatory, crowd-sourced and crowd-curated events, or “un-curated” reality shows.

The real definition of a Web 2.0 application is something that gets better the more people use it, a show like American Idol is the equivalent of a Web 2.0 app, its nothing without the audience and the participation, and that is what the emerging expectation is. Again, someone more eloquently than me, Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern, has summed it up:

We really have to start considering a museum like a mass medium, but we still don’t know how it really functions, what are the rules and the laws?

That mass medium would include the physical experience too. So, while we still haven’t fully figured it out, museums really have no choice but to transition to a full-on engagement with their audience through the networked environment and particularly mobile, but that doesn’t mean that the physical, visceral experience goes away or that it has to go into relief.

Similarly, like other challenges that museums face, [insert shameless plug for the OSCI interim report] our challenge is not how we are going to “do” digital publishing its how we are going to economically and sustainably support digital and print publishing.

One Response to “SETI”

  1. Holly Witchey Holly Witchey says:

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoyed this blog and thanks for the shameless plugs of the Horizon Report & OSCI. You are a voice of reason crying in the wilderness (minus the religious connotations of the phrase). More posts please.

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