We often engage in discussions about online interaction with museums or about digital and social media. We talk about using existing digital media resources to serve our goals. Just as often, we talk about the perceived competition we are in with many of those same resources for audience attention and scholarly authority.

But what is digital media? Is it blogs, youtube and facebook? Or is digital media something else entirely, something that is related to those things, but not directly synonymous with them? It seems clear that a media-driven social revolution is occurring, but is “digital media” even the right term for describing it? Are text, audio and video new forms of expression—the seed of a new social revolution? Or is the real core of this revolution something that underlies those things?

I’d like to suggest that the heart of this new media revolution is ultimately software (and the hardware that runs it). Digital video, audio and text are old media captured within the frame of this new medium, procedural media. It’s not these more visible forms of consumed media that have dramatically changed, but the processes that govern the capture, editing and distribution of that media.

Procedural media is a radically different form of media. It is not purely descriptive. It is not really imitative without many layers of abstraction disguising its underlying form. It is imperative in its expression, and it compels an active response in those who consume it whether they realize it or not. For this reason it can be persuasive, even manipulative. Software is an expressive form of media. The values of its creator(s) manifest in the surface qualities of the user experience and in the underlying architecture of its code. Perhaps most uniquely though, procedural media not only provides a description for how something is done, it actually does it.

People often compare software to a set of instructions. It is a somewhat flawed analogy because software is more than that. Imagine you could write a set of instructions for a colleague on a sheet of paper that would magically stand up on their desk and perform the described task for them, occasionally compelling your colleague to provide input to or otherwise interact with the magic paper as it performed its task. That’s software.

It is easy to focus on the “old media” aspect of this because it is the most immediately visible result of the new media revolution. How have computers and the internet changed movies, TV, newspapers and the music industry? Today we all have powerful audio and video editing suites in our laptop bags, and asynchronous broadcast capabilities are available to everyone for a fraction of what old broadcast systems used to cost. That is a big deal. I don’t mean to imply otherwise.

But what many people are not noticing about these new media creation tools and distribution channels is that we are still doing all of our creating and sharing through someone else’s carefully designed frameworks. The short video format did not rise to prominence because people loved short film. YouTube enforced a 10 minute time limit on uploaded videos. The recent preeminence of the the single over the album in today’s commercial music market is not a consequence of radio programming or consumer demand for more one-hit wonders. It is a result of both the technical restrictions of the early music sharing technologies and the playlist building and shuffling features of new music listening applications and devices. Oftentimes, policies of restriction may have been initiated due to technical reasons, but they served to create new business models. When the technical need for these policies has faded, they remain enforced in order to serve those business interests often at the expense of the consumer, the creator or both.

Someone who is knowledgeable in procedural media can find ways to distribute all of the older forms of media without the restrictions defined by companies like YouTube, facebook or flickr. But most users of these services, most media creators, are not knowledgeable in the creation of software. We accept the limitations of our services almost unquestioningly and allow them to shape our own behaviors. We often do so without consciously thinking about why those limitations exist in the first place.

Simply put, code is policy. Software defines the set of affordances and limitations that lie behind every system we use both personally and professionally every time we interact with a computer. And most things these days are computers. Every new car is a computer with an attached set of input controls and output mechanisms. Your cell phone is a computer (even if it’s not a smart phone). Even simple household appliances like toasters and coffee makers are commonly shoved full of frankly unnecessary microcontroller circuits to make them “smarter” or “more sophisticated”. Software drives your ticketing systems, accounting systems, collections systems, scheduling systems, communications systems, security systems, climate control systems, inventory systems, development systems, marketing channels… the list goes on.

If we want to have any control over our organizations’ processes and policies in the future we are going to have to understand the nature, utility and limitations of software. Either that or we are going to have to accept that more and more of our day-to-day process decisions will be made by outside parties who are responsible for the design of the systems we use. It is not just what we want to do that we should think about, but how we want to do it. And if the systems to facilitate what we want are not available to us, what compromises are we willing to accept? What compromises are we already making? What organizational policy decisions have we already adapted to fit within the limitations of the software systems available to us?

How many times have you found yourself or someone else at your institution muttering under their breath at the ticketing system or the membership database or the collections management software you use? How many of those same people shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that’s just how these things work,” or “I’m just not good with computers”? Do we really want to use this same technology to engage with our audiences if all we can do is shrug our shoulders and accept it when it doesn’t do what we want it to?

I still want to talk about the future of the exhibit. I still want to talk about how best to engage our audiences online and in our galleries. I want to talk about the kinetic museum. But I also want to talk about the nuts and bolts of just how we expect to facilitate all of our great ideas while using software and systems whose base assumptions were made decades ago by people who were addressing completely different problems.

This sounds like an IT problem to many people, but really it is an institutional problem. IT simply does not have the breadth of expertise necessary to know what kind of software systems everybody else in the museum needs. We need to meet in the middle somewhere. I need to learn more about museums. And you need to learn more about software.

I will never be a curator, but if I am going to build better systems and tools that will be used by curators I need to know more about what they do and how they do it. And curators are going to have to adapt too. They will have to understand how to use procedural tools to make their jobs easier and to enable tasks that previously would have been considered impossible. These tools will allow them to learn more about their own collections, to find connections previously hidden in mountains of data. But in order to use these tools effectively, they will have to understand some of the underlying principles of how they work.

An engineer can design and build a car, but they still need a trained driver at the wheel to drive it. Just as you don’t need to be an automotive engineer to drive effectively you shouldn’t have to be a computer scientist to use software effectively. But you do have to know something about cars and the rules of the road to drive, and you will need to know something about procedural media to extract the full potential from today’s new procedural tools.

The media revolution we’re in right now is not about text, audio, video or even really social interaction. It is about the processes of information discovery, creation and distribution. This media revolution is a procedural media revolution. If you don’t master the media of those processes, someone else will. That someone will then choose to either help our institutions or exploit them. They could possibly even try to replace us. That is as true for museum professionals today as it is for absolutely everybody else in the world.

2 thoughts on “Procedural Media

  1. Hi Matt, are you familiar with Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget? He seems to be making a related argument – that our thinking and expectations are completely shaped by the technology – software and hardware – the procedural media as you describe it, that we use to do our work. He doesn’t see this as a good thing!

    • I’m familiar with Lanier, though I haven’t read that particular book. The idea that our behavior is shaped by our interactions with technology is basically an extension of Don Norman’s ideas as presented in The Design of EveryDay Things. None of this is particularly new in CS or design circles, but it seems like a stumbling block in some conversations we’ve been having lately. I thought this might be a good place to create a sort of baseline summary that can be referred to in later discussions. You might also like Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or Be Programmed for more along the same lines (which is also a pretty good read and really influenced my categorization of software as procedural media).

      As for being a good or bad thing, it depends. All of our expectations are shaped by the world around us, and this is just part of that. How good or bad this is really depends on how we are being shaped and how aware we are of it. I think that far too many of us have just become kind of complacent with the assumptions that other people have handed down to us through the devices and systems we use every day. Our interactions with software have become almost dogmatic and now serve to separate us from the fullness of the medium’s real potential.

      I also think that a lot of the resistance to online and other technology-related initiatives in museum circles is due to many people only being aware of one kind of experience with software, the crappy kind. It’s not surprising to me that some people roll their eyes at suggestions of digital engagement or collaboration when the only digital experiences they have are with bad wifi setups, Microsoft Office and reply-all email chains. But the only way to move the experience and its effects on us from worse to better is to take control over it.

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