Editors’ Choice: Digital Strategy Catches up With the Present: An Interview with Smithsonian’s Michael Edson

For this installment of Insights, the National Digital Stewardship Alliance Innovation Working Group’s ongoing series of interviews, I talk with Michael Edson, the Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian Institution. Edson gave a compelling talk at last year’s NDIIPP/NDSA conference, Let Us Go Boldly into the Present I’m excited to take this chance to talk through and discuss some of the key ideas in his vision for the role of digital media in cultural heritage institutions.

It looks like you keep revising and expanding your talk, Let Us Go Boldly into the Present, could you give us a quick abstract or brief run-through of what your argument is in this talk?

Michael: You’re right, I have been updating and revising this talk! It’s a set of ideas I feel very strongly about, that I want to share and make better.

The basic idea of the talk is that there is enormous value to be had in the technology platform we have available to us today. We don’t have to wait anymore for some new technology to appear or mature. We don’t have to wait to see if social media and crowdsourcing and mobile data in the cloud are going to add up to anything useful. It’s happened. These things are real, now today. And we’d better get busy. If we want to do justice to our missions—our audacious and important missions in society—we’d better get busy. We need to change our collective mindset from “let’s be cautious and wait to see how things are going to turn out before we commit” to “Let’s place the bet. Let’s get it done.” Hence the title of the talk, “Let us go boldly into the present.”

Let me give you an example. Five or ten years ago we had people like Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams telling us that the future would be owned— “pwned” if I may— by disruptive new ways of working, ways of thinking about work, that took advantage of crowdsourcing (though I don’t think they called it that) or distributed networks collaborating without much central control, like wikipedia. Wikinomics was published in 2006. Those of us who read it, devoured it, and tried to spread the concepts up through our organizations were met with a fair amount of skepticism back then. Even though the arguments in wikinomics are meticulously and generously documented with real world examples, the world in which groups of strangers could work together without central control to advance the mission of a non-profit or increase shareholder value seemed a little…vague, to many people. It was easy to dismiss. Now, eight years later, kapow! Those ideas are tangibly, bankably real because we’ve done the work and shown how it succeeds. This wiki-like way of working is provably real, at scale, in our industry, and now it’s time to place the bet.

These are not fringe activities anymore. Mobile is not a fringe platform. Crowdsourcing is not a fringe activity. Social media is not a fringe activity. Open access is not a fringe activity. Or they shouldn’t be. They don’t deserve to be. These are serious workplace tools. But I think many organizations, used to a slower evolution and maturation of new ideas and platforms, haven’t noticed how quickly we’ve transitioned from theory to prototypes to practice to profit–however you want to define profit.  I want organizations to notice what’s changed, what the new physics are, and to align resources and priorities accordingly.

The world needs memory institutions to succeed, to win big, at scale. There’s a lot at stake for our culture, our cultures, our species right now. And we’ve got to either win, now, or get out of the way.

Trevor: How have your ideas about digital strategy for cultural heritage organizations changed and evolved?

Michael: How long do you have?!

Now keep in mind that I’m not a policy maker or a spokesperson here. I’m just a strategy guy with an interesting vantage point.

I find myself focusing more and more on execution and scale recently. Learning how to be a “closer”, personally, and studying the different ways organizations execute successfully on their visions. And also how to orient ourselves towards projects, visions, strategies, that operate at a big scale–that really move the dial on the things we care about, not just for hundreds or thousands of people, but for millions and tens of millions of people. I’m disenchanted with the strategic change model of opportunistic low-risk tactical one-offs and I’m looking for ways we can work tactically towards big, big things.

I was talking with an astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory a few weeks ago and he said they won’t even consider building a new instrument unless it offers a factor of 10x improvement over the last system. That means that with every new telescope they can see ten times farther back to the beginning of time. That’s kind of…bracing. I’d like to see that kind of dedication to scale and impact in the way we approach the other kinds of work we do. Andrew Ng at Stanford just taught his computer science course, online, to 100,000 students. He told the New York Times that he’d have to teach that course in a traditional classroom setting for 250 years to reach that many students. That’s scale.

We have about 20 million physical visits to the Smithsonian every year. Are we going to be able to double that? Triple that? No. Never. Could we triple our reach and impact online? Quadruple it? See a 10x increase? Yes.

Trevor: What parts of our standard practices at cultural heritage organizations do you think we should be radically rethinking? Are there any key parts of our organizations that you think just persist unchanged which we should be seriously re-evaluating?

Michael: “Radical” is a pretty loaded term. What we’re doing isn’t radical. It’s pretty practical, given what’s changing in society, what will change in the future, and what’s at stake.

In this epoch we should be rethinking, re-evaluating, everything, always. That’s not radical, that’s pragmatic. That’s liberating and realistic. But it’s not a license to navel gaze. Let’s get something done. Something that will matter, for a citizen, tomorrow, and something enduring that will matter 100 years from now.

I think the most important re-thinking we’re doing now is around our traditional intellectual property policies, and the ways in which we can encourage and celebrate the use, and re-use, of “our” resources by citizens—by everyone—for the benefit of society. If we get it right, if we begin to form a new appreciation for how our work relates to the giant mashup that is knowledge creation and cultural participation in the digital age, then our descendants will remember us with smiles on their faces. Our institutions will endure.

Read Full Interview Here


This content was selected for Digital Humanities Now by Editor-in-Chief based on nominations by Editors-at-Large: