Groupthink vs diversity (It’s the dorks that give it a real go)

Posted on August 14, 2011

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When I was growing up, we moved around a lot. I was perpetually the new kid, and being an only child, this meant that I was also a bit of a loner. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to do things alone – I just struggled to meet people with whom I connected.

It’s a pretty common experience. Lots of kids, particularly those with a creative bent, struggle to find their niche. It is all too easy for children who didn’t grow up with the rest of the gang, or who don’t instantly gel with the group, to feel completely isolated – the freaks and geeks of society. This is not entirely a bad thing however. After all, as put so eloquently by Australian band TISM, in their ode to cricketer Glenn McGrath, “There’s never been a popular teenager yet who’s done rat’s with their life. Its the fucking dorks that give it a real go.” (Apologies for the swearing.) There is actually a lot to be gained by being an outlier; by being one of the kids who never fit in and who survived despite not running with the cool kids. You develop a bit of moxie.

Having said that, one of the coolest things about the Internet is its ability to connect us with like-minded folks. No longer do the dorks of the world need to exist in social isolation. Instead, they can find a community to belong to no matter where they are located. After all, prior to MW2011 I had never met a single person who cared about museum tech. Now, my life is filled with them.

But the thing is, when you only talk to people like yourself, your thoughts are never challenged. No one pulls you out of the crowd, and makes you back your opinions. No one teases you for being the freak disturbing the status quo.

And if we lose that, then who is going to come up with the amazing ideas and the paradigm-changing insights that only come from being the sole geek or the black sheep that never fit in???

This post from Michael Michalko on Psychologytoday.com outlines common thinking strategies of genius… and unsurprisingly, groupthink is not one. Instead Michalko notes that geniuses make novel combinations and force relationships; they think in opposites and prepare themselves for change – all of which is much more likely to occur if your knowledge is drawn from diverse sources. After all, many of the researchers – like Michel Foucault or Marshall McLuhan – whose work has made huge impact upon museum thinking have not been museologists, and it is their diversity of opinion and external insight that has forced new thoughts and considerations within the field.

So if we are now self-curating our worlds into smaller and smaller circles of like-minded people online, where will these innovative and often provocative thoughts come from?!?

One answer is the museum itself. Modern museums exist at least in part to educate the public, a role that equips them perfectly to take up the challenge of exploring contrasting ideas, and bringing novel combinations into effect. Rather than simply reinforcing people’s existing beliefs, curators and exhibitions coordinators can work to ensure the museum is a safe environment in which views can be presented that might clash with the visitor’s own assumptions. After all, simply coming into the museum space indicates that a visitor is open to new and potentially uncomfortable experiences, and that receptivity is an ideal starting place for the exploration of new thoughts.

But it would be great to be able to do the same thing online too, so that visitors to the museum website were not only able to find what they were looking for, but also enticed to look further at something that might challenge them. Can museum websites encourage creativity and new discovery, and get people to think about ideas that they would not normally be confronted with? Can a museum website actually stand in place for a physical museum as an affective device?

I’m don’t know the answers, but I do know that our lives are richer when we do not cushion ourselves away from difference simply because it’s uncomfortable. And with that in mind, I’m off to find someone new to follow on Twitter whose experiences and opinions do not match my own…

NB – This post was in part inspired by a conversation I had with Seb Chan the other day. Thanks Seb!

Posted in: Ideas, Museums