In this post, I’ll revive an argument that I raised in the journal Museum & Society. In an article co-authored with Nick Rowland (a former guest on this blog), we argued that it is unwise to use museums as an exemplar of institutional theory. According to the traditional view, museums are these completely malleable things that bend to the will of the institutional environment.
Instead, we argue that there is a technical core to museums that often asserts itself. For example, contemporary art often requires large spaces to installations. Museums that wish to preserve their art must have technology for controlling temperature and humidity. Modern museums also have systems for managing accounts, tracking attendance, and other tasks. We don’t argue that institutionalism is wrong, but that museums are not the “cultural dupes” that appear in the literature. Even cultural organizations have technical cores that must be integrated with their social environments.
A couple of weeks ago I was at a workshop at Oxford about NGOs and reputations. The workshop was sponsored by the Centre for Corporate Reputation and gathered scholars from a number of disciplinary backgrounds to explore how NGOs create and maintain reputations. In addition, we were interested in examining the reputational consequences that result from their interactions with corporations. At the end of the workshop I shared some of my takeaways.
It occurred to me that a number of the papers in the workshop conceptualized NGO reputation in a similar way to how we think about corporate reputations. For example, we assume that reputations are shared perceptions that reflect how an organization (successfully or unsuccessfully) differentiates itself from competitors, or we learn that organizations strategically try to manage the impressions of their key audiences in order to create a positive reputation. But if NGO reputations are similar in most ways to corporate reputations, do we learn anything new by studying NGOs that we couldn’t learn by studying for-profit organizations? Do NGO reputations differ fundamentally from corporate reputations?
I think they are different in at least one really important way: NGOs are valued because we believe they are somehow more morally authentic than other kinds of organizations. Therefore, a NGO’s reputation is grounded in how well it meets its audience’s expectations for moral authenticity. Two questions might come to mind as I try to make the link between moral authenticity and reputation. The first is, what does it mean to be authentic anyway? It’s quite possible that the term is too fuzzy to be analytically useful or perhaps we only ascribe authenticity to organizations in a post-hoc way. And second, why should NGOs be expected to be any more morally authentic than other organizations?
I recently visited Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s not a terribly good museum, even though it covers a topic, rock and roll, which is very exciting. In this post, I’ll try to figure out what goes wrong.
It always helps to start with a discussion of what museums do. In general, they (a) entertain, (b) educate/inform/indoctrinate, and (c) act as an archive or research center. It’s pretty clear that the R&R Museum isn’t scholarly, so we have to think about how the museum tries to entertain or engage the audience, or tell the audience something.
I’m in the Poconos this week with old college friends and only intermittently paying attention to the larger world. And I’m hesitant to opine about the latest in the world of online experimentation (see here, here, or here) because honestly, it’s not my issue. I don’t study social media. I don’t have deep answers to questions about the ethics of algorithms, or how we should live with, limit, or reshape digital practices. And plenty of virtual ink has already been spilled by people more knowledgeable about the details of these particular cases.
But I do want to make the case that it’s important to have this conversation at this particular moment. Here is why:
If there’s one thing the history of technology teaches us, it’s that technology is path-dependent, and as a particular technology becomes dominant, the social and material world develop along with it in ways that have a lasting impact.
The QWERTY story, in which an inefficient keyboard layout was created to slow down the users of jam-prone typewriters but long outlasted those machines, may be apocryphal. Perhaps a better example is streetcars.
Historian Kenneth Jackson, in the classic Crabgrass Frontier, showed how U.S. cities were first reshaped by streetcars. Streetcars made it possible to commute some distance from home to work, and helped give dense, well-bounded cities a hub-and-spokes shape, with the spokes made up of rail lines. This was made possible by new technology.
Early in the 20th century, another new technology became widely available: the automobile. The car made suburbanization, in the American sense involving sprawl and highways and a turn away from center cities, possible.
But the car alone was not enough to suburbanize the United States. Jackson’s real contribution was to show how technological developments intersected with 1) cultural responses to the crowded, dirty realities of urban life, and 2) government policies that encouraged both white homeownership and white flight, to create the diffuse, car-dependent American suburbs we know and love. The two evolve together: technological possibilities and social decisions about how to use the technologies. As they lock in, both become harder to change — until the next disruptive technology (((ducking))) comes along.
So what does all this have to do with OKCupid?
The lesson here is that technologies and their uses can evolve in multiple ways. European cities developed very differently from American cities, even though both had access to the same transportation technologies. But there are particular moments, periods of transition, when we start to lock in a set of institutions — normative, legal, organizational — around a developing new technology.
We’re never going to be able to predict all the effects that a particular social decision will have on how we use some technology. Government support of racist red-lining practices is one reason for the white flight that encouraged suburbanization. But even if the 1930s U.S. mortgage policy hadn’t been racist, other aspects of it — for example, making the globally uncommon fixed-rate mortgage the U.S. norm — still would have promoted decentralization and encouraged the car-based suburbs. Some of that was probably unforeseeable.*
But some of it wasn’t. And I can’t help but think that more loud and timely conversation about the decisions and nondecisions the U.S. was making in the early decades of the 20th century might have led the country down a less car-dependent path. Once the decisions are made, though, they become very difficult to change.
Right now, it is 1910. We have the technology to know more about individuals than it has ever been possible to know, and maybe to change their behavior. We don’t know how we’re going to govern that technology. We don’t really know what its effects will be. But this is the time to talk about the possibilities, loudly and repeatedly if necessary. Maybe the effects on online experimentation will turn out to be to be harmless. Maybe just trusting that Facebook and OKCupid aren’t setting us on the wrong path will work out. But I’d hate to think that we unintentionally create a new set of freedom-restricting, inequality-reproducing institutions that look pretty lousy in a few decades just because we didn’t talk enough about what might — or might not — be at stake.
* There is a story that GM drove the streetcars out of business by buying up streetcar companies and then dismantling the streetcars. There are a number of accounts purporting to debunk this story. This version, which splits the difference (GM tried, but it wasn’t a conspiracy, and it was only one of several causes) seems knowledgeable, but I’d love a pointer to an authoritative source on GM’s role.
Over the past few years, George Lucas has tried to find a home for his museum, which will house his personal collection of contemporary art and, of course, the deepest collection of Star Wars memorabilia in the world. At first, he tried his backyard, San Francisco, before choosing the city of Chicago.
It turns out the move to Chicago won’t be worry free. Apparently, a coalition of Bears fans will try to stop the Lucas Museum from locating itself next to soldier field. From artnet.com:
The group fighting for maintaining public and open space claims that Lucas’s plans for a 95,000-square-foot cultural institution are in direct violation of a city ordinance that ensures that space adjacent to Lake Michigan be reserved for public use. The other group threatening to sue over the choice of location for the museum—which will house artworks from Lucas’s private collection including pieces by Maxfield Parrish, Alberto Vargas, and Norman Rockwell, as well as Star Wars memorabilia—has a much more practical reason for its opposition: The institution would be built on a site that is currently devoted to two parking lots next to Soldier Field use by Bears fans for pregame tailgating.
This nicely illustrates how organizations fit into urban systems. First, there are the overt politics of an organization. Is it welcome? Does it flaunt public values? Second, how does it fit into the “spontaneous order” of urban politics? While the planner in the mayor’s office probably saw an ugly parking lot, they didn’t see how locals use the space for the very emotionally rooted rituals, like football. Later in the article, various people are quoted as saying that they welcome the Lucas museum, but maybe it should be used to develop low income neighborhoods. Thus, the Lucas Museum has been punted from being part of the “urban engine” of sports and entertainment and thrown into the domain of Chicago race politics. It will be interesting to see if Lucas sidesteps this, or is drawn into another development quagmire.
This clip is full of rationality, sanity, and basic human decency. Reagan even proposes an essentially open US/Mexico border at the end. When Reagan is to the left of Obama, it shows our policies are in need of serious overhaul.