Jay Mollica is a creative technologist living in San Francisco. His work emphasizes helping large non-profits build maintainable digital platforms, creating educational tools and exploring emerging technologies. Throughout his career he has worked with scientists, curators, artists and educators to realize complex multifaceted public facing projects.
Primary Materials: Your title, Creative Technologist, sounds a bit exotic in the context of a museum. Can you explain your role at SFMOMA and how you understand technology's role in its mission?
JM: My role as Creative Technologist involves managing SFMOMA’s existing digital properties while also leading inquiries into emerging trends and technologies.
In 2018 it is a given that museums have a technical imperative. To this end, it is important that we make ethical decisions around the tools we use. Technology as we perceive it today is based on a model of consumption. It is the new gadget, the new car, the new app, the new juicer.
This perception creates pressure on museums that are budget constrained and vastly under staffed compared to today’s tech companies. Though my job title is Creative Technologist, I have always taken issue with the idea that my work is somehow technical and the work of my colleagues is not. What the word “technologist” connotes is not a level of complexity in my work, but a familiarization with “newness” and thus aligned with the aforementioned model of consumption. An association I reject.
Newer technology is often inaccessible to wider audiences. However there is an ambient use of technology in our everyday lives, and while it may seem mundane, I believe it is worth reexamining its use and the structural consequences it has on how we explore, learn and proliferate ideas.
For instance, last fall I teamed up with Open Space to publish a series of articles discussing possibilities for a more user centered and expressive web. My introduction to the series examines how discourse shapes people’s expectations of the medium. The full series can be found here.
PM: You recently developed an SMS service for the museum that went viral. What is Send Me SFMOMA? How does it fit into broader efforts to make collections accessible and encourage new kinds of interaction with museums?
JM: Send Me SFMOMA is an SMS service that allows anyone in the US to search our collection using everyday language. You can text the number 572-51 with “Send me something blue” and get a primarily blue artwork sent back to you.
The user experience was grounded in two ideas:
1. When people search for art, they usually do so through famous names or artworks. You might search Google for “Picasso,” see some Picassos and that would be the end of it. By limiting folks to using descriptive words for search we were hoping to encourage a more exploratory experience. When someone says “Send me a dog,” they don’t care if they got a Picasso back, they are delighted to get an image of a dog back, often by an artist they had never heard of.
2. Search engines generally return a massive amount of results for every query, but that can be to the detriment of the user. Searching for art and getting back thousands of responses can be pretty daunting and diminish the feeling of art as a singular expression of subjectivity. Serving one thing at a time is more manageable for the user, and also engenders exploration. We’ve been finding that people are really eager to test the limits of Send Me SFMOMA. Once they get through basic queries like “send me cats” and “send me something red” their requests get increasingly subjective and esoteric.
Both of the above items actually seem really unintuitive on paper: diminishing specificity and reducing the number of applicable results, but when looked at through the lens of accessibility they actually make a lot of sense. Accessibility, in a sense, means making information interpretable / exchangeable in multiple ways, so providing alternate methods of access and consumption serves to unlock new audiences.
PM: Send Me SFMOMA works largely as a stand alone experience separate from the "physical" museum. Can you talk a bit about how you see technology relating to the more material and mundane aspects of the museum? Objects in storage? The experience of the gallery?
JM: My job is not to find ways to apply technology to every aspect of the museum, but to find ways that technology can better serve our audiences while also respecting the intent of the artist and artworks in our collection.
The museum collection is kind of like a medium, in the sense that it presents its own set of constraints. And while a lot of the metadata around artworks may seem boring, one my favorite parts of my work is to find ways to make it interesting to our audiences. Any large set of data will have interesting insights hidden inside, the idea is to manage the complexity in such a way that the interesting parts crystalize into a narrative or point of exploration.
As people become more connected to the internet, they become more dissociated from their geographic placement. This presents a challenge to the traditional museum model that is centered around providing access to physical space. Prioritizing web-based initiatives that open up otherwise obscure or unseen aspects of the museum, can allow museums to raise awareness while also augmenting their more traditional offerings.
PM: You've also recently written on the implications of threats to net neutrality from the museum perspective. Are developments like this a challenge to the apparent democracy of accessing the museum virtually?
JM: The repeal of net neutrality poses a clear threat to the missions of educational and cultural organizations. If ISPs are allowed prioritize the information people have access to then it deprives users of the breadth of knowledge a truly democratized internet can offer.
The web was founded on a principle of near frictionless open collaboration. It remains to be seen how ISPs will react to the repeal of net neutrality, but any initiative that impedes that access will have a chilling effect on education, collaboration and scholarship.
Corporate interest in curtailing our discourse has a long history, and extends to every method of communication imaginable, even emoji. Thus it follows, that we must always advocate for unimpeded access to information and methods of communication.
PM: At the same time that the digital is promoting access to collections, it's also drawing more attention on what works and artists are (and aren't) included in museums. Can technology help us tackle questions of equity and social justice that seem to be among the most pressing issues facing museums today?
JM: The web is the best method of distribution available to museums. Museums can only fit so many people within their walls, but can reach millions of people around the world through web based initiatives.
In terms of drawing attention to inclusion (or lack thereof), digital can be very helpful to museums. One of the criticisms of Send Me SFMOMA was that people wanted to see more artwork returned that was created by female artists. The SFMOMA collection is currently about 19% female, so the best way to ensure that we send back more work by female artists is to collect more work by female artists. So in that sense, digital can play a big role in transparency and presentation.
Technology is one of many tools an organization can use to augment its message, however ultimately, addressing issues of social justice and equity need to be a systemic effort of the institution.