Revenge of the apps

explorer_iphoneI’d like to enter a contrarian view about navigation apps, which are poised to infiltrate our endearingly technophobic art institutions. Forgive me for sounding like a cave man. But then, this post was inspired, in part, by the American Museum of Natural History, which just launched an ad campaign flouting a nifty new GPS-enabled navigation tool.

There is no denying that such apps are a convenience. Loaded onto iPhones and other devices, they can lead the cultural explorer on journeys more precise and information-larded than anything enabled by a brochure or wall map. They help shift the costs of way-finding and education from the organization to the visitor. They are easy to update. And they’re cool. At the labyrinthine Art Basel fair last June, an astonishingly clever iPhone app helped collectors locate their favorite galleries or a decent sandwich.

So what’s not to love? Quite a bit, I think. For museums especially, such apps come loaded with subtle butterfly effects that techno-evangelists ignore at their peril.

First, they represent to an incursion of technology into a refreshingly gadget-free domain heretofore devoted to physical objects and direct collective experience. There is a case to be made, perhaps, for exempting some areas of life from the relentless digitization and intermediation of everything. Of course it’s easier to find the great blue whale by letting your PDA guide you. But what about the joy of aimless browsing and discovery? Here as elsewhere, technology has a way of taking the mystery and the surprise – not to mention the unpremeditated educational encounter – out of cultural experiences. What’s more, it subtly transforms a group dynamic into a bespoke, private pursuit. Analogies with newspapers abound.

Second, make no mistake, digital way-finding is a Trojan Horse. Cash-starved museums are unlikely to be able to resist using the technology for mundane or commercial purposes. Today’s helpful hint about the location of the bathrooms will lead to tomorrow’s reminder about jigsaw puzzles in the museum shop, and soon, to advertisements for nearby restaurants and emporia. Looking at tropical fish? Might we interest you in scuba diving equipment?

The final and most obvious consequence has already been demonstrated by an older communications medium in the museum. Have you ever observed tourists entering a gallery? They file dutifully along the walls, fix their gazes for one second on the artwork, then immediately get to work reading the wall text. What will these people do when pictures and texts appear together, bundled with other enticing information options, on their beloved iPhones? Throw in phone calls, emails, chats, and Google searches on the same devices, and the museum will soon feel like a Starbucks.

But enough of the Luddite ranting. I’m not suggesting that museums should ignore new platforms for convenience and edification. Resistance to technology is futile, in any case. I do offer one piece of advice. Remember the OFF button.

Leave a Reply