“If we wish a different world, it is necessary to design humane and liberating technologies that create the world as we wish it to be.” — Bonnie Nardi

What does it mean to build a digital infrastructure for the arts? What does it take?

A digital infrastructure is a network of independent systems that play nice with each other. I imagine a digital infrastructure that will exclusively serve the arts community, provide end-to-end services for their most pressing needs, and ensure its sustainability by evolving with the times we live in.

It would allow your data to be easily ported between services. Artists and patrons alike would have sensible ownership over their information. Shared metrics are safely aggregated into anonymized open data sets that can help us gain a clearer picture about what we do collectively from the most grassroots organizations to national institutions.

That is a very different description of the ‘digital infrastructures’ we are working with at the moment: an ad hoc collection of online and digital tools built for a mass consumer market, with interesting features that don’t necessarily fit your workflow. The most mission critical files are either managed from your desktop computer, or stored in cloud-based services that regularly change their service agreements without you noticing.

In other words, adoption of technology creates new challenges, with no simple answers for resolving them. If this is the reality, is it any wonder there is a resistance to change?

Let’s bridge traditional arts and culture values with forward-looking innovations.

There is a huge gulf between where are and where we want to be, and I believe that articulating the complexity of the problem as well as concrete solutions is a critical and practical first step to bridge that gap.

The experience of building BeMused Network from the ground up over the last three years has inspired me to initiate a conversation about building digital infrastructures in the arts in a meaningful and productive way.

  1. To start, we need to identify and articulate the emerging and ever-evolving needs of our artists and arts organizations in a networked society. Do we need an arts-specific information policy? Do we need free and open-source tools and resources for our artistic communities? Do we need scalable co-marketing initiatives? What does open data mean for our artists? (Maybe the answer is that they are too burned out to care. I am hoping not.)
  2. We need to align with like-minded designers, researchers and technologists to create purpose-built solutions that serve the arts exclusively. The barrier of access to technological know-how is lower than ever. Who are the specialists working towards digital infrastructures for the arts? What can we learn from them? How can we work with them? (Let’s create opportunities for like-minded practitioners from multiple domains and disciplines to cross paths.)
  3. We need the collective commitment and resolve of the arts community to make this a priority within our own practice. This can be as simple as engaging with the relevant conversations, or as involved as incorporating it in your strategic plan. The common thread is the intention and desire to build a foundation from which all our artistic practices can thrive, and from which the next generation of audiences spring. (If you are grappling with the questions above,or they inspired some new ideas, thank you. You are already giving it priority. Wasn’t that easy?)

This is a discussion that we cannot afford to delay. If this post has resonated with you, or you want to bring this conversation into your world, join the LinkedIn group on “Digital Infrastructures for Canadian Arts and Culture” to share your thoughts and hear other perspectives.

Got a question about the topic in this post? Please leave a comment below.