Arrgghhhhh! Or, perhaps, Doh!!

I was listening to the latest Radiolab, which is about people talking to machines. They were discussing a regular event held in honour of Alan Turing’s test of machine intelligence: people sit down and talk to either a machine designed to simulate human conversation or a real person – they don’t know which. The hope is that at some point computers will become so good that eventually we won’t be able to tell whether we’re talking to a machine or not. (Turing’s suggested test for whether or not we should talk about a machine being intelligent or not.) Apparently the success rate for the computers at these events is very low. One of the commentators pointed out that this is perhaps not surprising because conversation between humans is, if not a mystery, then at least a very subtle and dynamic process.

Arggghhhh (Doh!!!)

In all this gathering of information about object handling, and with focussing on all this neural stuff, I have largely overlooked the fact that each moment of handling occurs within a conversation and within a relationship between facilitator and participant(s). That’s overstating the case – I’ve known about it and I think I can use Falk & Dierking’s contextual model for a museum visit as a way of framing the contextual issues around an object handling session.

But something about what the guy said… about the nuances of conversation…

Conversations are about the mutual exchange of ideas around an object, enriching each other’s thinking in a way that neither would have predicted at the outset… about the emotional value of listening and being listened to… about the simple pleasure of not being alone…

Actually a lot of the case study material that has come out of various museum-based projects will feed into this. For instance: It is commonly stated that one of the most important factors in setting up a successful project/workshop with older people is that the session should begin with tea and biscuits. At a guess I would say that the tea and biscuits do not really fill a need for sustenance but rather they act as a sign or a as part of a ritual which shows that what everyone is taking part in is a social experience. If metaphors can inform the way that people think about data, it seems reasonable to suppose that tea and biscuits predispose people to think about what follows in a more open, social, positive fashion than if the facilitator just sat down and said ‘let’s talk about an object’. This. of course, relies on a certain degree of shared social/cultural capital for ‘tea & biscuits’ to evoke common responses. Given the diversity of cultures within the UK and, therefore, the diversity of cultural background amongst older people such a shared social capital will not always be a given.

The arrghh/doh moment was a recognition of another area of exploration being suddenly opened up. Again, I’ve known that there were other areas that needed exploration. Human behaviour is, I think, like a set of nested emergent properties. The neural stuff helps but I’ve felt for a while that I’ll have to look to stuff like material culture to think about the wider contextual issues. What this shows is that there is an area around social interaction between people and the place of the object in that, which I’ll need to think about too.


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
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