Larry M. Brow 2014-02-10 17:41:22
Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects. —Will Rogers Technology, as we’ve all witnessed, creates brilliant, new opportunities. But it’s ever evolving, and we can’t predict when new technologies that can advance our workplace will emerge or how much they’ll cost. Our challenge then becomes budgeting for opportunities that have yet to be created, or even named. I’m not a strategic planner, nor do I “play one on TV.” I’m just a person who works in an environment in which other people get to make choices about the technology I have to use to get my work done. Some of that technology is the hardware (ergonomic or not) that my body interacts with, and some of that technology is the software that organizes, enables, or frustrates my attempts to benefit my employer. And now, part of that technology is the revolution in business communications that comes with internet linkages and social media platforms. Social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have provided amazing new levels of communication with museum and archives patrons. For a tiny fraction of traditional advertising costs, institutions can announce events and initiatives to audiences who have already expressed interest in the institution’s mission. Furthermore, because the public can respond directly, quickly, and relatively anonymously, priceless information can come back to the museum or archives promptly. Of course, someone at the institution has to be there to notice the comments, forward them to decision makers, and post replies. Even if this vital work is entrusted to a volunteer or staff of volunteers, there are costs associated with that. Those costs are a bargain, but they need to be part of the budget, and five years ago it was a budgetary category that no one could have imagined. In addition, when something new like Facebook or Twitter comes along, everybody starts out equally ignorant about it and equally in need of instruction and experimentation. Although you hope to use the new capabilities in productive ways, there are often hidden costs and unpredicted malfunctions that will reveal themselves over time. With science fiction writers being who they are, someone has probably written about every conceivable technical advance and its associated social consequences. But none of us has the time to read all those stories and work out the math on which writings are prophecies and which are just entertainment. And we’ve all got other jobs to do. Doing those other jobs will force us to face new technologies and endure their unforeseen consequences or celebrate their benefits, but only if our institutions have set aside the money to buy into those unnamable changes ahead. There is no doubt that designating funds for new capabilities can be a gamble. Technologies, be they hardware or software, often are marketed as glittering, magical improvements to the preexisting forms. But we often don’t know much about how the new technologies are made, who made them, or how to fix them if they break. Although we may initially think of the technology as magical, it can prove to be a tainted magic in the end. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take the gamble. We simply need to learn to ask better questions of our new technologies and to think beyond short-term solutions. It’s no longer good enough to have just a basic database spreadsheet program. Our online finding aids must permit keyword searches and our platforms must be scalable. We need to plan for migration to new platforms and new data storage devices. And we have learned to rush forward with skepticism, knowing that most things that sparkle right out of the box eventually lose their shine. Please, still plan on spending money and hours on the new technologies and capabilities, but not on all of them—and not before considering them carefully first.
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