Are we all cyborgs? Digital media and social networking

Continuing with my reading of Staiff’s Re-imagining Heritage Interpretation, I come to his chapter on digital media and social networking. He wastes little time on those who “persist wit the idea that podcast audio-tours and GIS-activated commentries care just extentions of ‘old’ ways on interpreting material culture, but simply using digital techniques,” rather (writing in 2014, remember) Staiff is a champion of “Web 2.0 as all it emblematically stands for”:

Web  2.0 and the generation of of users who inhabit this experience […] are not interested in pre-packaged information that is passively received; rather they want open access to databases so that they as visitors can share the content and be co-authors of  the interpretation. The digital-savvy wants to be a creator of meaning as well as a consumer of meaning.

I shared a similar optimism when he was writing, but I am less convinced now. Yes, visitors to cultural heritage do share their experiences on social media, but they are not yet demanding access to databases to share that content and their own interpretation. Or at least not many are, despite the prevalence of smartphones, and our seeming inability to let go of them. The majority of visitors that I (and others) observe do not use their devices on site. It’s worth mentioning that back in 2014, he also saw 3G wireless as more of a  gamechanging technology than it turned out to be. Even 4G speeds haven’t enabled mass use of the internet on-site in heritage. Recently a colleague spoke hopefully that fifth generation wireless technology might finally get people using mobile devices more on site. We shall see, but I remain unconvinced.

But digital interpretation does not need to take place on-site. Staiff writes enthusiastically of a student’s response to a digital heritage interpretation assignment he regularly hands out. He describes how “Gabriel” chose his/her ancestral home town, Sienna, and started off creating an inventory of all the information s/he could find on the web about it, including Wikipedia and Youtube, official civic sites and personal blogs by both tourists and residents. Then, says Staiff “Gabriel” built an interactive website that allowed visitors to mash up the content he had sourced, and add to it. “Gabriel” built the code, but didn’t control the content “what emerged was a ceaseless interaction between fellow classmates, his/her family, and friends. It is impossible to describe in words the way this digital creation worked out or what it included because what stood out changed, at any point in time, as did the conversations and contributions.”

Staiff lists some of the things that caught his eye, representative of the dynamic and user generated nature of the site, and that list includes, for example:

  • A grandmother’s reflection about growing up in the contrade
  • a recipe for panforte
  • a poem about a beloved aunt who lived in Sienna
  • a friend’s university essay on Ducio’s Maesta; and,
  • a link to a video game Assassin’s Creed

… among many other things. Apparently the site “is a special place/space in Gabriel’s family with contributions both the Sienese side of the family and and Sydney side of the family.”

Which all sounds wonderful, in the new media mode of Manovich, something more than the sum of its parts, created by its users. Here, heritage is not simply an object or place that you look at, but (Staiff cites Laurajane Smith’s Uses of Heritage) something you do, a verb rather than a noun. Garbriel’s website is a utopian interpretation of the city.

Utopian in its truest sense, because it doesn’t exist.

Gabriel is in fact, a “hypothetical student” and the website Staiff describes “is the work of a number of students over several years […] merged together to form a composite example”, which is a pity because it sounds fun. Now, any one of Staiff’s students may have produced a site as dynamic, as comprehensive and as well supported by its users, but somehow I think not. I have written before about the critical mass of users that heritage specific social media sites need to be dynamic. I have also written about the luxury of time available to digital creators/curators, that very many people simply don’t have. The students that constituted “Gabriel” were given an assignment, given time to create their work. The majority of social media users are necessarily more passive. These are concerns that I think Staiff shares:

“In the digital world, who is participating, who gets to speak, are all speaking positions valid in relation to cultural places, objects and practices, who is listening/viewing, who is responding and why, what are the power relations involved here, do marginal voices continue to be sidelined, what about offensive and politically unpalatable commentary?”

But it can not be denied that there is truth at the heart of Staiff’s argument. Much more is being researched, written, drawn, filmed and in other ways created about the heritage than can possibly be curated by the traditional gatekeepers – museums, trust’s, agencies and their staff. Staiff acknowledges “the anxiety about who controls the authoritative knowledge associated with heritage places” but counters that “What is needed is a complete rethink and conceptualization of the role of heritage places in the digital age and to see the technological devices used by visitors, not as ‘things’ separate from the carrier, but as ‘organic’ and constitutive parts of the embodied spatial, social and aesthetic experience.”


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