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Going Boldly Into the Present with Michael Edson

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A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk by Michael Edson, Director of Web and New Media Strategy for the Smithsonian Institution.  The talk, entitled “Let Us Go Boldly Into the Present” (similar to his presentation at our Partners Meeting this past summer), touched on a lot that we think about, deal with or just hope to deal with someday in our digital preservation work.

Cover slide from Michael Edson's presentation

If any of you have heard Michael speak, you are already familiar with his dynamic and thought-provoking style – he presents the big, 30,000 foot view of things while citing resources and providing colorful anecdotes to back up his assertions.  The talk inspired me to think further about the points that he brought up, and how we think of digital preservation in this context.

In thinking through a potential blog post, I realized it’s hard to do justice to the creative outpourings of Michael Edson in a blog – you really needed to just be there, feel the energy rise in the room, and experience the lively Q and A that followed to get the full effect.  So, I picked out a few points he made that struck me as particularly relevant, and I talked with Michael further about these.  Here are some of his thoughts on those points:

The future is now

“The crux of it is, the future always seemed farther along than it really was.  Most organizations haven’t noticed that change yet. With my roots as an artist, programmer, and multi-media guy, I remember how hard it was originally to get stuff done.  I remember writing Perl (a programming language), so basically, I could have something like flickr.  And now there’s flickr, which just had its billionth photo uploaded!  Real developers say it is so much easier to do stuff now than it was a few years ago. ”

Geospatial and video – this is where innovation is happening

“This is to say, we are thinking about the kinds of commitments we should be making around geospatial information and video.  I think we need to create a lot of value around these things.  I like to cite the TED video by Chris Anderson “How Web Video Powers Global Innovation”.  I think he really nails a lot of very important concepts.  He talks about how TED survives and thrives by giving everything away.  It’s real and it’s happening now”.

“I assert that, not too long from now, people coming into our workforce are going to assume that video and geospatial are part of the platform, just like a cubicle and telephones are now.  We’ve got to be ready for that.”

Note: and the following point builds on this…

Re-use is very important

“I want more of everything!  That is, more broadcasting to passive audiences, more participation, more crowd-sourcing, more everything.”

“There’s a tremendous opportunity for organizations to produce websites of all kinds, mobile, etc. to help people re-use our stuff. I’ve been citing Kathy Sierras’ thoughts on this for a long time.   It used to be, corporations would say ‘like me, buy my thing, because I’m great’.  Now, the equation is ‘buy my stuff because I can help make you great’.  When you take that as a given, you begin deploying resources in a different way.  It becomes much more service oriented.”

Michael then talked about this in the context of the Library of Congress, saying, “the big value proposition is that [the Library of Congress] is worth society spending money on, because you help make certain kinds of work possible that are impossible any other way.  For organizations to continue to be successful, you’ve got to help people be successful.”

From Michael's slideshow - Time's Person of the Year, "You"

Note: if you look through Michael’s slide presentation, it’s also worth noting the analogies of “on ramps and loading docks” as well as the concept of “edge to core.”  But for now, we will end with this….

Burn the boats!

“I like what Mark Andreessen (co-founder of Netscape) says in a 2010 interview when he’s giving advice to the newspaper industry.  He’s taking a pretty hard line, and saying essentially, ‘the old business model for the newspaper industry is broken, because you are clinging to the dying moments of your last empire.  Advice to the old media – burn the boats!’  This is basically a reference to ancient history, landing on a foreign shore, having the invading armies burning their boats as a symbol of commitment. His point is that if traditional media companies don’t burn their own boats, somebody else will.”

“Now, institutions don’t survive long-term by rashly changing their business strategies, but they need to figure out which of the 20th century business practices to carry into the 21st century.  I’ve been at the Smithsonian for 20 years – I’ve seen radical change in the way the Smithsonian approaches print publications, for example.”

“Something I care deeply about is trying to understand, for an institution, what should change feel like?”

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