Without Reservation

Since the pandemic began, I’ve taken to walking up and down a nearby hill every lunchtime. Every day, I pass the Burns Monument, a Neo-Greek temple commemorating Robert Burns. Normally it’s closed to visitors, but during the Edinburgh Art Festival this month you can visit a sound installation by Emeka Ogboh.

Visiting is free, but I was surprised to discover that advance booking was advised. Then again, everything seems to require booking nowadays. It’s especially intense right now due to the pandemic reducing the capacity of, well, everything, but the growth in reservations began long before 2020. Reservations are accepted, and often now required, at museums, restaurants, bars, galleries, and even parks.

Since I like planning, I welcomed this development. I find it satisfying to put together itineraries for days out and holidays, and since most reservations can be made online, it goes hand-in-hand with the increased availability of transit schedule information on the web and Google Maps. No more crossing my fingers that a restaurant won’t be too busy or we can get into a popular exhibition – everything can be secured well in advance.

So you’d think the more things that can be reserved, the better for planners like me. That’s what I thought, until I went to Disneyworld a few years ago – a place where demand management has become such a well-honed science it makes even the most hardened planners blanch with fear.

Disneyworld is so busy that until very recently (more on that later) if you wanted to avoid queuing for hours at even moderately popular rides and restaurants, you had to make reservations months in advance. You couldn’t make all your bookings in one go, either; I had to repeatedly check back in case more convenient slots opened up. 

Once you’re in the park, you can’t sit back and enjoy the fruits of your labour as you get extra FastPass reservations every day, best spent strategically on popular rides to fill gaps between more valuable reservations made earlier. The problem is that since the popularity of rides changes in real time, if you want to be really efficient (and hey, I’m a planner), you’ll want to refresh the Disneyworld app a few times an hour. 

(You might wonder why I care about seeing everything so much. It’s partly because I’ve done consulting work for Disney Imagineering in the past, and so I was professionally interested to know what was going on in the parks; but mostly, I find these kinds of ultra-designed immersive themed environments to be endlessly fascinating. Also, hey, Disneyworld is expensive and I wanted to get my money’s-worth!)

On our trip a few years ago, we went on practically every single ride and the longest we waited was 40 minutes (Frozen). Mission accomplished – but at what cost? It was a surprising amount of work for what was meant to be a fun holiday. I suppose I could have not bothered making any reservations at all, but then we would likely have seen barely a third of the things we would have otherwise, and the rest of the time would’ve been in queues. So there wasn’t a great alternative.

The rest of the world is rapidly following Disney’s lead. Whether it’s the Avatar ride in Animal Kingdom or a fancy restaurant in Edinburgh, the goal is to fill every single seat for every single hour, as far as possible in advance, with reservations going to the most valuable (i.e. big spending or committed) customers.

So nowadays, a trip to London or even a weekend at home requires reservations days and weeks ahead. There’s the nagging feeling you’re always being rushed. Are we going to the coolest places? Did we plan too many events, or too few? We’re always checking our watches to know when we’ll need to leave for the next place.

Is this what our leisure time in cities has become? And how much worse could it get?

There’s a view that someone is a planner because of their personality. That’s kind of true, but I prefer to see planning less of a character trait and more of an act, and the act of planning requires resources:

  • Time and energy, to research options and make reservations – a sometimes frustrating process involving poorly-designed websites and long phone calls.
  • Knowledge and experience, to know that reservations are even possible and understand which things need to be reserved and when.
  • Freedom and security, to know your work and holiday and family schedule and budget securely enough to book time weeks or months in advance. The bigger the group, the harder to organise in advance.
  • Money, for deposits or full-price tickets.

Planning is an inherently privileged activity. Even if you love planning, you’re going to be stymied if you don’t have these resources. Planning is also paradoxically risky for people in precarious situations since it requires you to commit to a future course of action, one that could come with financial penalties if you have to change your mind; but also, penalties if you don’t plan, in the form of fewer options and higher prices. Yet if you’re wealthy, those penalties are a trivial price to pay, and you can even outsource the entire job to a vacation planner.

A lot of people are in the middle – not so precarious they can’t plan a holiday six months in advance, but not so rich that easily write off the loss of all their deposits if their circumstances change. So you exist in this in-between world where you’re constantly trying to decide how far ahead it’s worth planning.

On the face of it, businesses ought to benefit the most from reservations. Reservations allow them to maximise profits by charging more at peak hours and offering discounts to fill quieter periods. Confirmation emails and paid deposits also reduce the chance of no-shows. Finally, the ability to predict demand means businesses can scale staffing accordingly, though it’s easy for this to result in poor working conditions.

But I don’t get the impression that after a restaurant switches on reservations, it immediately rakes in the cash through increased efficiencies. Rather, I suspect the gains are largely realised by companies selling reservation software rather than the restaurants themselves. The software usually costs a few hundred dollars a month, and platforms like OpenTable can charge a dollar per customer (i.e. per seat) for certain bookings, which is a lot given the razor-thin margins of most restaurants.

Restaurants could always roll their own reservation systems and try to avoid the charges, but there are a couple of reasons why they don’t. Firstly, good software is very expensive to develop and maintain – well beyond the abilities of most small businesses, or even a small chain of business. Taking payments and integrating with Apple and Google Pay is no simple task, especially when the rules keep changing.

Secondly, the most popular reservation systems like OpenTable and Resy have grown beyond simply selling software for restaurants to use on their own websites into destinations in their own rights where people discover restaurants as well as booking them. In other words, when people think “I want to go to an Italian restaurant tonight”, they don’t go to the website of a restaurant they saw in the local paper, they just visit OpenTable and click on “Italian”. Booking platforms offer something that simple software doesn’t – the ability to reach a wider audience.

The shift of OpenTable into a platform has seen it sell marketing opportunities to restaurants like bonus points promotions (from $4/cover) and boost campaigns ($3-5/cover) that increase their visibility to customers. This is happening on a broader scale with Google Maps and Tripadvisor, both of which encourage visitors to make reservations directly (i.e. without going to the restaurant website, or even OpenTable/Resy). And those platforms also sell marketing opportunities for businesses to promote themselves.

So it isn’t clear that businesses, especially small ones, are adopting reservations because it’s profitable or empowering. Instead, it may be something they’re forced to do because these platforms have become the new mode of discovery, and not offering one-click reservations harms them versus the competition. And the simple availability of reservations contributes into the pressure for customers to make reservations.

Who’s profiting? The small businesses? Maybe.

The customers? Maybe.

The platforms? Definitely.

The end result of this movement is that our access to real world experiences is experiencing a kind of digital enclosure. The experiences are still there, but increasingly the way in which you discover and access them is through just a few giant companies. That said, our access was never quite free before – it was just gated in different ways, sometimes more explicitly by class or race.

Is there a way out? Well, you could opt-out of real world experiences entirely and just do everything at home, with all your entertaining delivered to you on-demand (and your food and drink, why not). A lot of people already do this, whether by choice or by force of circumstance. The problem is that home entertainment and food delivery are even more digitally-mediated than real world experiences, with entire forms of media dominated by a handful of conglomerates. So while you don’t have to do much planning at home, your options are being constrained in different, albeit more subtle, ways.

Assuming you still want to go outside, you could stop going to popular places: if you go to an average restaurant or bar or museum rather than the highest-rated on Google Maps or Tripadvisor, you probably won’t need to book ahead. This would freeing in some ways, but it’d sharply limit your experience of the world – not everything popular is good, but a lot of good stuff is popular. Sure, some people could manage this, but there are plenty of forces pushing you towards places requiring reservations:

  • Ranking systems and algorithms mean that average places are increasingly invisible in maps and lists, a phenomenon exacerbated by social media.
  • The discovery of real world experiences is increasingly happening through sites that promote and earn money from reservations (including Facebook).
  • If your job doesn’t give you much holiday, no wonder you’ll want to secure the “best” experiences for the little time you have; Disneyworld made a lot more sense to me when I realised Americans have no holiday.
  • At least some of your friends and family will still like going to popular places.

So there isn’t much you can do as an individual. What can we do as a society?

We could build more stuff! More restaurants, more bars, more attractions, more museums, increasing overall capacity. This might mean less profit for owners, of course, which is a real problem given we live in a capitalist economy. Another problem? It costs a lot of money to build physical experiences, so either you need to raise lots of money somehow (usually from investors who want profits) or reduce costs (possible, but really hard for cultural, technological, and political reasons).

We could also try reducing the gap in popularity between physical experiences, to spread demand more evenly. That would probably require greater redistribution of profits to prevent concentration of market power, and changes to how places are discovered, algorithmically or otherwise.

Reservations are, of course, a hidden way to increase prices, since you can often pay to skip the queue. Usually this is artfully hidden to prevent normal customers from becoming too annoyed (e.g. separate or hidden VIP lines at theme parks), but not so hidden that customers don’t realise the benefits of paying more. 

You can tell how desperate a business is for cash by how obvious the “skip the queue” option is. Museums, usually quite coy about how their members can walk into booked-out exhibitions ahead of the general public, have lately been aggressively promoting memberships everywhere. But the best barometer has been Disney’s theme parks, which exist at the leading edge of technology, customer experience, and capitalism.

Historically, Disney has offered plenty of ways to skip queues and reserve attractions more easily. For example:

  • Full-price theme park tickets could reserve rides further in advance than other ticket holders
  • People staying at pricy resort hotels could get into the parks earlier than everyone else and stay later
  • VIP guides, costing thousands of dollars a day, allowed groups to skip most lines

Still, Disney tried not to draw too much attention to these techniques (especially the VIP guides) and even the cheapest tickets still had some access to the same FastPass lines as higher-spending visitors.

One result of this complicated arrangement was that a lot of people (including me) felt they had to spend a lot of time making reservations weeks or months in advance, a ritual that spawned a mini-industry of planning websites and guides. When some of my friends heard about this gauntlet, they were put off visiting Disney entirely.

I saw Disney’s first moves in solving this problem when I visited Disneyland Shanghai in 2018. Unlike other parks, no advance ride booking was possible, and visitors only got a meagre one or two FastPasses per day. If you wanted more, you could buy “Premier Access” FastPasses to skip the line, either for a bundle a rides, or for individual rides. During my visit, the bundle had already sold out by the time I made it into the park, so we had to buy Premier Access Fastpasses for individual rides at about $15 each – not cheap at all for China.

The lack of advance booking meant I was spared the distraction and stress of planning before our visit, which in any case was a last-minute decision (so, in a way, I was advantaged). That stress would have manifested inside the park if it weren’t for the fact that I was willing to spend more money to make it go away, not to mention that I knew how to make the app work. The inequity of paying to jump the queue was not lost on other visitors; I can’t speak a word of Mandarin but I can tell when someone is deeply unhappy seeing rich people waltz past the scary uniformed security guards posted at every FastPass entrance.

This year, Disneyland Paris introduced Premier Access at a cost of €8-15 per ride each time, swiftly followed by huge changes at Disneyworld and Disneyland involving a new “Disney Genie” app. This app sells access to a new Genie+ option costing $15-20 per day that lets you skip the line on rides a few times a day, something you used to get for free via FastPasses. But if you want to skip the line on the most popular rides, you’ll have to pay again, for some undisclosed price – I’m guessing another $15-30 per ride.

As in Shanghai, I don’t think you can reserve rides weeks in advance any more. In fact, you can only really reserve rides when you arrive at the park (or at 7am, if you’re staying in a hotel resort). This is in keeping with another newish demand management idea from Disney called virtual queues, which lets you wait in line for super-popular rides without having to physically stand in line (so you can go on other rides and buy more stuff); crucially, you can only join a virtual queue when you are inside the park. But again, this just shifts the stress of planning from the weeks before park entry to the moment after, whereupon visitors desperately hammer their Disney apps for five minutes to enrol in all the virtual queues they can, and soon, book all their Genie+ reservations.

What of the visitors who can’t afford Genie+? The Disney Genie app is the final piece in this puzzle – it creates personalised itineraries that respond to real-time demand, perhaps suggesting nearby rides with shorter queues. This is… good, I guess? It could level the playing field between app-savvy ultra-planners and more casual visitors, at least.

Disney has described this whole Premier Access/Genie venture as a way to “distribute demand much more effectively through [our] ecosystem.” Ecosystem is an interesting way to put it. I suppose since they own the entire park, they can call it whatever they want, and given the parks’ popularity it’s understandable and arguably necessary that they do something like this.

Where I get uncomfortable is when that ecosystem expands beyond the walls of a private theme park and encompasses entire cities and countries, as the tech giants would surely like to do. When companies like Google and Apple and Tripadvisor seek to own the entire “stack” of discovering, booking, and paying for real world experiences, it’s a short leap for them to create their own Genie that plans everything for you.

Unlike Disney’s Genie, which will only know what you tell it, these tech giant Genies already know what food you like and what brands you buy. They already know how busy a location is and how long it’ll take you to walk there. They’ll construct an itinerary for you, taking bids from businesses for your custom, just as they do online. You won’t even know what you’re missing, because their Genies will gently steer you away from places that you can’t afford. Of course, if you can afford it, you’ll always be able to skip the queue and reveal more options.

All of us will finally be able to explore the world without a care, guided not by own our whims but by algorithms claiming to work on our behalf. Not flaneurs, but fauxneurs.

Follow me on Twitter: @adrianhon 

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The V&A Dundee Museum is an £80 Million Mistake

What’s your favourite museum and what does it look like?

For me, it’s hard to choose between the V&A Museum in London, with its beautiful, endless art and design galleries and its stylish special exhibitions; and the Exploratorium in San Francisco, which does the best job of explaining science and technology I’ve ever seen; and of course, the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, home to an entire 64-gun warship.

But I have no memory of the Vasa Museum looks like from the outside. For all I know, it’s a huge featureless box, just like the Exploratorium. And while I do remember the V&A’s red brickwork, it blurs together with other Victorian buildings across the UK. I couldn’t care less what my favourite museums look like, because what I love about them sits inside their walls.

The new V&A Dundee museum is the polar opposite. With its angular slate-grey profile set against the River Tay, it’s unforgettable. Like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, you’ll see it in every Dundee tourist guide for decades to come.

It just has one problem: there’s barely anything inside. It’s not a museum, it’s an £80 million public sculpture.

A Living Room for the City

I was genuinely excited to see the V&A Dundee when it opened in 2018. I grew up in Dundee, and I hoped the new museum might be just as good as its parent in London, if understandably smaller.

But even before I set foot inside, I could tell something was wrong:

V&A Dundee exterior (V&A Dundee)

How tall do you think that building is? 3, 4, maybe even 5 storeys of public space?

Nope. There are just two floors the public can enter:

Section View (Archdaily, V&A Dundee / Kengo Kuma and Associates)

That seems a bit small for a major new museum, but still, it’s a wide building. Maybe two floors is fine if they’re both filled with galleries and exhibition space?

Let’s take a look at what’s on the ground floor:

Ground Floor Plan (Archdaily, V&A Dundee / Kengo Kuma and Associates)

So, there’s a shop, a cafe, an info desk, and a lobby. But that’s just a plan, right? Surely they added something else?

Photo of the ground floor, taken from the second floor

No, it really is just a shop, a cafe, an info desk, and a lobby. Well, there’s a bit more of the shop out of view to the right, plus some toilets and lockers, but that’s it. Kind of a strange way to greet visitors to what’s meant to be, you know, a museum.

OK, but maybe they’re saved everything for the second floor? Let’s find out:

Second Floor Plan (Archdaily, V&A Dundee / Kengo Kuma and Associates)

The Temporary Exhibition Galleries at the top and the Restaurant at the bottom both require visitors to pay, so the two areas the general public can access for free are the Scottish Design Galleries and the foyer, which includes the Michelin Design Gallery.

Here’s the Michelin Design Gallery:

Photo of the Michelin Design Gallery

These kinds of temporary open exhibition spaces are often quite small so it’s easy to change them up. You won’t spend a lot of time here.

And here is part of the Scottish Design Gallery, the only permanent gallery in the whole museum:

Photo from the main entrance of the Scottish Design Gallery

It’s pretty good! There are lots of fun examples of Scottish design, from video games like Lemmings to sculptures by Eduardo Paolozzi. There’s even an entire room from one of Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s tearooms. If you took your time, you could spend a good hour wandering through the gallery’s 550m² of space.

And then you might be done with your visit, because that’s literally everything you can see for free.

You could stump up £12 to see a temporary exhibition, but I didn’t because I’d already seen Ocean Liners: Speed and Style at the V&A London. If you did pay, however, you’d get access to Scotland’s largest museum-grade exhibition space, spanning 1100m². And you might really enjoy it! But the V&A Dundee is unusual among UK museums in having only a third of its gallery space free to enter. The Science Museum and the National Museum of Scotland and the British Museum all have big paid exhibition spaces, but they’re dwarfed in size by their free galleries and exhibitions.

Perhaps if the V&A Dundee’s paid exhibitions were particularly good or unique, that would justify their command of the building, but its first two originated from the V&A London (Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt and Ocean Liners) and the third, Night Fever: Designing Club Culture, originated from the Vitra Design Museum. Its first fully-homegrown exhibition, Tartan, only comes in 2023 and is being curated by Jonathan Faiers, a professor of fashion at the University of… Southampton.

Try as I might, I cannot comprehend the decisions that went into building an £80 million museum with barely any space for free galleries, few original major exhibitions, and the entire first floor given over to a cafe and a shop. The V&A Dundee calls itself a “living room for the city“, but that only makes sense if there’s nothing to do in your living room, and you need to pay to turn on the TV.

But doesn’t everyone like the V&A Dundee? Most art critics gave it high marks. Will Gompertz at the BBC called the museum “world class”, going on at length about its architecture. Duncan Macmillan at The Scotsman gushed over the Scottish Design Galleries, saying “it is a delight for us, but it also fulfils the V&A’s duty to reach out beyond the English metropolis which is its home.” Rowan Moore at The Guardian had a rare dissent, complaining the museum’s “oddly distributed space is not actually congenial to the uses advertised.”

(I have never quite understood art critics’ obsession with architecture. One wonders how they would review Sir John Soane’s Museum or the Pitt Rivers Museum, neither of which look special from the outside – or even the inside – but have utterly fascinating collections, easily worthy of repeat visits.)

Visitors were much more faster to identify the museum’s flaws in their reviews. On Google Maps, the most common keyword is “waste”:

Screenshot of Google Maps V&A Dundee review keywords

Some of those reviews include:

  • Beautiful building but underwhelming exhibitions. So much waste of space at the entrance and stairway. Only free exhibitions on at the moment… – 3/5 stars, Elizabeth Moser
  • Visited today, very disappointing, both in the architectural features and the total waste of spaces within the building… – 3/5 stars, Janice Learmonth
  • Take some photos of the exterior and don’t waste your time inside, was in for about 25 minutes and had been round what was there… – 1/5 stars, Alan Urquhart

Tripadvisor is even less generous, with Dolly Dimples saying, “The building is nice but there’s hardly anything in it. Could be so much better,”, Matthew L saying, “The V&A building itself is a marvel … it is the content (or lack of) inside which left me so very disappointed,” and lbj17 adding, “There is much open space and we were unfortunately somewhat underwhelmed by the internal content.”

To be fair, there was some criticism of the V&A Dundee published in mainstream media by The Herald, but only long after the opening. Lorn Macneal, a conservation architect, was quoted saying, “Externally it is a striking piece of architecture,” but, “the inside … disappointed me. In many museums you enter, such as the Kelvingrove, you immediately see the exhibits, which create a sense of invitation to see and learn more. It has failed in my mind in its principle areas. It is a tourism hub, a cafeteria and a shop.”

Nicola Walls, director of arts and culture at Page Park architects, was more damning: “…When you walk in, the café and coffee shop on the ground floor is more affordable and the more expensive restaurant is upstairs. We talk a lot about these buildings being democratic, but is there a subconscious separation going on?”

So much for a living room for the city.

Finland’s 100th Birthday Present to Itself

At the end of 2018, just three months after the V&A Dundee, a vast new civic building opened in Finland: the Helsinki Central Library Oodi, commonly known as Oodi.

Aerial view of Oodi (Oodi, Tuomas Uusheimo)

The Oodi is a £88 million box. A box with flowing facades made of lovely materials, but a box nonetheless. It’s a functional shape, allowing each of its three floors to maximise its useable space.

The top floor is the library proper, holding 100,000 books, magazines, board games and video games:

Oodi “Book Heaven” (Oodi)

The second floor has a recording studio, synth studio, DJ and karaoke studio, photograph and video studio, digitizing studio, group kitchen, maker space, group rooms, game rooms, among other things. Most can be used for free:

Oodi Second Floor cutaway view (ALA Architects)

And the ground floor has more space for books, plus a cinema, events hall, gallery, exhibition area, and cafe:

Oodi Ground Floor cutaway view (ALA Architects)

In total, Oodi has 17,250m² of space, the vast majority of which can be used for free.

Oodi opened on Finland’s 100th anniversary of independence, which is why it’s been described as its 100th birthday present to itself: a lavish, more extravagant version of something it’s always wanted, open to everyone. A bit like a fancy museum, you might say.

There are more parallels between Oodi and the V&A Dundee: they both cost £80-90 million and their countries both have a population of 5.5 million. But that’s where the similarities end. Oodi has had almost three times as many visitors as the V&A Dundee, and even though you’d think a library is much less of a tourist attraction than a museum, it boasts far higher ratings on Google Maps and Tripadvisor:

V&A DundeeRiverside MuseumOodi
Size1100m² temporary + 550m² permanent galleries (8000m² total)7,000m² exhibition area17,250m² total (a third for books)
Cost£80 million£78 million€98 million (~£88m)
Year 1 Visitors830,000650,0003,100,000
City Population150,000630,000650,000
Country Population5.5 million5.5 million5.5 million
Tripadvisor Rating3.04.54.5
Google Maps Rating3.94.64.6

I’ve included Glasgow’s Riverside Museum of Transport in this comparison because it shows it’s possible to build a visually-striking museum with a reasonably-sized exhibition area for under £80 million. Not only was it designed by Zaha Hadid, but it has the same visitor ratings as Oodi!

Glasgow Riverside Museum exterior (Zaha Hadid Architects/Hufton & Crow)

Some Imaginary Questions and Answers

Q: Why does Helsinki need another big library? It already has plenty! So isn’t the Oodi even more of a waste of money than the V&A Dundee?

A: Not only does Oodi has more and different facilities than other Helsinki libraries, but each of those other libraries hit record numbers of visitors after Oodi opened in 2019. What’s more, Dundee already had a very good art gallery and museum, The McManus, which has <checks notes> a rating of 4.6 on Google Maps and and 4.5 on Tripadvisor.

Q: It’s not fair to compare a library’s visitor numbers with a museum’s! Most people will only go to a museum once, but they’ll go to a library lots of times.

A: And that’s a bad thing? Sounds like they’re getting a lot of value out of it.

Q: What’s wrong with making a civic building look nice?

A: There’s nothing wrong with interesting architecture, but not at the expense of its core purpose. The V&A Dundee’s is meant to be a museum – a place to see and learn from a curated selection of important objects. If the architecture of the building means that barely any of its space is available to display those objects, then it is bad architecture.

Q: Maybe the V&A Dundee’s true purpose is to attract tourists.

A: There are cheaper and better ways to do that than spend £80 million on a building that ranks 56th of out 118 “things to do” in Dundee.

Q: Who cares? It’s built now. We might as well appreciate it.

A: We should all care how £80 million of public money is spent. In Helsinki, it was enough to build a library that’s become the envy of the world. In Dundee, it was wasted on a bauble with such a miserly amount of useful public space it barely deserves to be called a museum.

Can It Be Saved?

In July 2020, Leonie Bell was announced as the new director of the V&A Dundee. Bell told The Courier, “I accept the criticism we have had about space,” and noted that during the pandemic, the museum converted its ground floor cafe into an exhibition. She added, “This is not about looking back and thinking that what happened wasn’t right. We are only two years old and have been closed for part of that time. We are still learning and we always will be learning. Buildings are always places of change.”

Aerial view of MIT Building 20 (MIT/MIT Museum)

Some buildings can change enormously. MIT’s famous Building 20, the “plywood palace”, was ugly and cheap, but it had many different uses over its 55 year lifespan because its box-like structure made it easy to modify the interior. The V&A Dundee is no Building 20 – just look at its plans. Its striking architecture makes major changes incredibly difficult.

What about smaller changes? Well, even if some or all of its ground floor cafe and shop were to be permanently converted into an exhibition, it would be a small exhibition sitting in a space manifestly not designed for exhibitions. It’d also interfere with the private events that presumably subsidise the museum, like filming Succession. A daring and admirable move would be to convert the 1100m² temporary gallery into a free or permanent gallery, instantly tripling the amount of space open to the public, but it’d be expensive and I can’t imagine the V&A would be happy about the loss of a venue for its London exhibitions.

I appreciate Bell’s sentiment, but her optimism is mistaken and her reluctance to look back risks the same mistakes being repeated elsewhere. At some point, you do have to look back. Now that we can say the museum was badly designed, poor value for money, and a disappointment to visitors and tourists compared to other Dundee attractions, we can ask: why did this happen?

The current staff aren’t to blame, and I’m sure they’ll do the best with what they were given. The fault lies with its original designers. All of the problems of the V&A Dundee’s design were foreseeable, which means they either didn’t consult outside experts, or they didn’t listen to them. If Scottish journalists ever rouse themselves to investigate, I hope those decision-makers are held accountable.

What they did was civic malpractice and one day it will become a textbook example of how not to build a museum.

Follow me on Twitter: @adrianhon 

I live in Edinburgh, and I’m CEO of Six to Start. I’ve consulted for The British Museum and the V&A Museum on digital culture and games.

I was lead designer of We Tell Stories, an online storytelling project included in the MOMA’s Talk to Me exhibition in 2011, along with Zombies, Run!, nominated for the Design Museum’s “Design of the Year” Award in 2013. My book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, was the subject of an exhibition at The Shanghai Project, curated by Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2016-17.

Interested in my other writing about museums? Check out VR Will Break Museums (2016).

Want to know about new posts and when my book on gamification is coming out? Subscribe to my newsletter!

First Draft

From my newsletter

Last week, I delivered the first draft of “Untitled Gamification Book” to my editor. I think it’s going to be a good book! It should have something new for even the most familiar with gamification, but it’s accessible for people who’ve never heard the word at all. I hope it will delight and annoy everyone in equal measure. But this is not the time for self-promotion, with the publication date still unannounced.

It’s not the first time I’ve written a book, but waiting to hear the verdict feels very different this time. My other book, A History of the Future in 100 Objects, had a publisher, but it since it was funded on Kickstarter I didn’t feel beholden to any specific person while writing it. I deliberately chose a more traditional route with my new book, with all the good and ill that it entails.

Toward the end of my draft, I struggled a lot with the knowledge that the book would become dated as soon as I stopped writing. Of course, this is an inevitable consequence of writing any book about technology or current affairs, but the protracted book publishing process doesn’t help when compared to newspapers or magazines, let alone websites or newsletters.

But hey, I knew this going in, and it’s a trade I willingly made. Newsletters are good for some things and books are good for other things. Plus there’s a lot in the book that deals with very recent developments in gamification, but there’s much more that looks back years and decades and even centuries, so I’ve made my peace with it. Mostly.

Anyway, now that the first draft is done, I have found myself strangely free of the need to write 500 words a day for the first time in almost a year. Yes, there will be a second draft and a third draft, but I’m hopeful they won’t involve the same kind of existential dread that greets me when I begin a new chapter and wrangle hundreds of vaguely-connected ideas and references into a barely-coherent outline.

I also just finished a whole bunch of commitments I foolishly signed up to at the same time (giving various talks, reviewing a book proposal, etc.), plus the sale of my company, Six to Start, has closed. So I’m doubly clear. Feels weird. But good.

So, what’s next?

I have a few projects I’m eager to start, including an event series for people in Edinburgh involved in everything immersive (theatre, games, escape rooms, museums, VR, etc.), but realistically that’ll have to wait until next year. And I have a long piece I want to write that has absolutely nothing to do about gamification, on the disappointment that is the V&A Dundee museum, but I figured I should take more and just a few days off from serious writing to clear my head. Hence this not-so-serious newsletter!

Games-wise, I’m finally playing Control now that it has actual difficulty settings. The story isn’t quite as mindblowing as I’d been led to believe – chalk that up to spending far too long reaching the SCP wiki – and there’s way too much repetition in combat and environments, but it’s still a fun ride. Especially if you make yourself invulnerable.

I’ve been working my way through Ursula Le Guin’s entire opus. I began with The Lathe of Heaven because it was added to my library’s eBook catalog, then zoomed through The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and the first four Earthsea books.

I’ve been told to read Le Guin for years; she’s influenced so many of my favourite including Iain Banks, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Naomi Alderman. But when I tried to read The Left Hand of Darkness many years ago, I just bounced off it. Which is fine! There is a time and a place for every book. This time, I’ve loved every word of hers’ I’ve read. In fact, it’d be hard to overstate how influential and radicalising her writing has been on my thinking, especially during the pandemic, and especially as workers have begun to exert their power.

Reading Le Guin feels like I’m discovering one of my favourite writers as if for the first time. There’s a strange sense of familiarity and consonance, but not so much that I don’t feel challenged. And I think of all the authors I’ve read from the 60s and 70s and 80s, her ideas feel the freshest, sci-fi or not.

Another book highlight this year has been George Saunder’s A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, which combines classic Russian short stories with a masterclass in fiction writing. Turns out the great Russian writers were pretty good – who knew?! I took a lot of comfort from Saunders’ advice, which has a lot of specifics but ultimately boils down to “find out what you’re good at, and stop trying to be a ‘great’ writer”.

On TV, we watched all five seasons of The Bureau, a French spy show that’s been doing the rounds of media hipsters and podcasters. It’s the best multi-season show I’ve seen since Halt and Catch Fire and incidentally features some very fine examples of storytelling-by-computer-screen. I remain beguiled by desktop simulator and phone simulator games and stories and I wish we had more.

We also watched a lot of movies – you can see them all on my Letterboxd! Highlights include The Conversation, Kajillionaire, Chungking Express, In the Mood for Love, After Life, Aguirre, the Wrath of God, pretty much all of Ozu’s movies, and surprisingly, Luca. If you want an uncomplicated, sunny coming-of-age story with a delightful score by the guy who Beasts of the Southern Wild (Dan Romer), this is the movie for you.

I’m about to check out a new Disney+ show, The Mysterious Benedict Society, which I can legitimately claim is research for work (but not for Disney), keep reading through Le Guin, and start outlining my V&A Dundee thing.

Keep well everyone,