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European Cultural Commons Workshop, Introductory Remarks (transcript)

YouTube video of this talk: http://youtu.be/VlHC0uPqdRY. This is a transcript of a short introductory video recorded for Europeana’s European Cultural Commons workshop in Limassol Cyprus on October 30, 2012.

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“A Catalog of Connections”
 Intro remarks and greeting for Europeana’s

             European
         Cultural Commons
             Workshop
    Limassol, Cyprus | October 30, 2012

                  Michael Peter Edson
        Director, Web and New Media Strategy
               Smithsonian Institution



 Video: http://youtu.be/VlHC0uPqdRY
This is a transcript of a video recorded for
        Europeana’s European Cultural Commons
       workshop in Limassol Cyprus on October 30,
                           2012.

                                       The video is online at
                          http://youtu.be/VlHC0uPqdRY


                                              Table of Contents
A Catalog of Connections ............................................................................................... 2
1. Europeana is one of the most important projects in the world today .. 4
2. Europeana won’t succeed by trying to be great ............................................. 5
3. A commons is like a gumbo ..................................................................................... 7
4. Beware of certain words........................................................................................... 7
    “Culture” .......................................................................................................................... 8
    “Audience” ...................................................................................................................... 9
    “Access” ............................................................................................................................ 9
    “Engagement” ............................................................................................................. 10
5. Think like investors ................................................................................................. 11
Some additional notes/references ......................................................................... 13
    Helping other people succeed ............................................................................. 13
    Hubs and spokes ....................................................................................................... 13
Hi everyone.
I’m Michael Edson. I’m the director of web and new media strategy at
the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.


But I suspect that many of you know that, and I know many of you in
that room in Cyprus today. I wish I could be there with you. I’m very
proud to know all of you. And I’m very very proud as a member of the
human species, of the work you’re doing today and the work you’ve
done through your whole careers to make culture and scientific
knowledge and the work of museums and libraries and archives
relevant and important and meaningful in society.


I think Europeana is one of the most important initiatives in the world
today. As Harry Verwayen said so persuasively at the Open Knowledge
Festival in Helsinkin last month [September, 2012, see “Open Cultural
Heritage Special Europeana Announcement from Harry
Verwayen” http://bambuser.com/v/2996301 ], what you’re doing
shows the world that Europe can accomplish difficult, meaningful things
if you work together and if you stick to your principles. That means a lot
to us here in the states. It means a lot to people all over the world. So
keep going.


I said that I’m with the Smithsonian Institution, but I’m not an official
spokesperson for the Smithsonian today. I’m speaking as a private
citizen who has been thinking a lot about the cultural commons, and



                                     1
thinking a lot about how our knowledge institutions can thrive and do
the important work they need to do in society during the digital age.


A Catalog of Connections
About a year ago I read a really interesting article in Quora. Quora is an
online site that’s about asking and answering questions and it’s often
full of surprises. This article was called “What is it like to have an
understanding of very advanced mathematics?”


[ http://www.quora.com/Mathematics/What-is-it-like-to-have-an-
understanding-of-very-advanced-mathematics , also cited and discussed
a bit on my tumblr at http://usingdata.tumblr.com/page/4]


OK…That’s kind of cool.


The answer, the best answer, the longest answer, was from an
anonymous mathematician who talked about what it is like to think and
work as a mathemetician. Two ideas came out of that writing, that essay,
that really blew me away. And I think they’re relevant for you today.


The first is – and I’m going to read off of a cue card behind the camera –


“You are comfortable with feeling like you have no deep
understanding of the problem you are studying. Indeed, when
you do have a deep understanding, you have solved the problem
and it is time to do something else. This makes the total time

                                      2
you spend in life reveling in your mastery of something quite
brief. One of the main skills of research scientists of any type is
knowing how to work comfortably and productively in a state of
confusion.”


That’s definitely the way I feel most of the time, grappling with these
issues that you’re working on constructively today. I feel like I’m always
working in a state of confusion and like I never have a complete grasp of
what’s going on. So I would say, allow yourselves to be comfortable in
that state of confusion and allow yourselves to resist the temptation to
feel like you’ve mastered it. Because you haven’t mastered whatever
you’re working on - - things are changing that quickly.


The second paragraph, element, of this article about mathematics that
interested me so much was, and I’ll quote this also,


“You are often confident that something is true long before you
have an airtight proof for it (this happens especially often in
geometry). The main reason is that you have a large catalogue of
connections between concepts, and you can quickly intuit that if
X were to be false, that would create tensions with other things
you know to be true…”


I love that idea of having a catalog of connections. I love that idea of
having a catalog of concepts, and that working through difficult ideas




                                      3
and unknown ideas is a matter of making connections between that
catalog of concepts.


In the spirit of that idea, I want to give you five concepts to think about -
- I want to assert five concepts that you can think about today. And you
can think about understanding the connections between them in
relation to your job in this workshop.


***


1. Europeana is one of the most important projects in the
world today

In the 20th century – in the 19th and 18th and 17th centuries for that
matter - - we made these wonderful institutions, these museums,
libraries, archives, scientific organizations, knowledge institutions. And
nobody told us we had to make these things. We felt compelled to make
them as a human race, as a species. I think these institutions and what
they represent in our genome is a part of our operating system - - part
of the operating system of society.


And we made them out of the tools we had available to us, out of the
materials we had available to us - - bricks and mortar and iron and glass
and big marble columns and magnificent spaces in the middle of our
cities. And also quiet, dark rooms - - filled with shelves and drawers of


                                      4
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European Cultural Commons Workshop, Introductory Remarks (transcript)

  • 1. “A Catalog of Connections” Intro remarks and greeting for Europeana’s European Cultural Commons Workshop Limassol, Cyprus | October 30, 2012 Michael Peter Edson Director, Web and New Media Strategy Smithsonian Institution Video: http://youtu.be/VlHC0uPqdRY
  • 2. This is a transcript of a video recorded for Europeana’s European Cultural Commons workshop in Limassol Cyprus on October 30, 2012. The video is online at http://youtu.be/VlHC0uPqdRY Table of Contents A Catalog of Connections ............................................................................................... 2 1. Europeana is one of the most important projects in the world today .. 4 2. Europeana won’t succeed by trying to be great ............................................. 5 3. A commons is like a gumbo ..................................................................................... 7 4. Beware of certain words........................................................................................... 7 “Culture” .......................................................................................................................... 8 “Audience” ...................................................................................................................... 9 “Access” ............................................................................................................................ 9 “Engagement” ............................................................................................................. 10 5. Think like investors ................................................................................................. 11 Some additional notes/references ......................................................................... 13 Helping other people succeed ............................................................................. 13 Hubs and spokes ....................................................................................................... 13
  • 3. Hi everyone. I’m Michael Edson. I’m the director of web and new media strategy at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. But I suspect that many of you know that, and I know many of you in that room in Cyprus today. I wish I could be there with you. I’m very proud to know all of you. And I’m very very proud as a member of the human species, of the work you’re doing today and the work you’ve done through your whole careers to make culture and scientific knowledge and the work of museums and libraries and archives relevant and important and meaningful in society. I think Europeana is one of the most important initiatives in the world today. As Harry Verwayen said so persuasively at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinkin last month [September, 2012, see “Open Cultural Heritage Special Europeana Announcement from Harry Verwayen” http://bambuser.com/v/2996301 ], what you’re doing shows the world that Europe can accomplish difficult, meaningful things if you work together and if you stick to your principles. That means a lot to us here in the states. It means a lot to people all over the world. So keep going. I said that I’m with the Smithsonian Institution, but I’m not an official spokesperson for the Smithsonian today. I’m speaking as a private citizen who has been thinking a lot about the cultural commons, and 1
  • 4. thinking a lot about how our knowledge institutions can thrive and do the important work they need to do in society during the digital age. A Catalog of Connections About a year ago I read a really interesting article in Quora. Quora is an online site that’s about asking and answering questions and it’s often full of surprises. This article was called “What is it like to have an understanding of very advanced mathematics?” [ http://www.quora.com/Mathematics/What-is-it-like-to-have-an- understanding-of-very-advanced-mathematics , also cited and discussed a bit on my tumblr at http://usingdata.tumblr.com/page/4] OK…That’s kind of cool. The answer, the best answer, the longest answer, was from an anonymous mathematician who talked about what it is like to think and work as a mathemetician. Two ideas came out of that writing, that essay, that really blew me away. And I think they’re relevant for you today. The first is – and I’m going to read off of a cue card behind the camera – “You are comfortable with feeling like you have no deep understanding of the problem you are studying. Indeed, when you do have a deep understanding, you have solved the problem and it is time to do something else. This makes the total time 2
  • 5. you spend in life reveling in your mastery of something quite brief. One of the main skills of research scientists of any type is knowing how to work comfortably and productively in a state of confusion.” That’s definitely the way I feel most of the time, grappling with these issues that you’re working on constructively today. I feel like I’m always working in a state of confusion and like I never have a complete grasp of what’s going on. So I would say, allow yourselves to be comfortable in that state of confusion and allow yourselves to resist the temptation to feel like you’ve mastered it. Because you haven’t mastered whatever you’re working on - - things are changing that quickly. The second paragraph, element, of this article about mathematics that interested me so much was, and I’ll quote this also, “You are often confident that something is true long before you have an airtight proof for it (this happens especially often in geometry). The main reason is that you have a large catalogue of connections between concepts, and you can quickly intuit that if X were to be false, that would create tensions with other things you know to be true…” I love that idea of having a catalog of connections. I love that idea of having a catalog of concepts, and that working through difficult ideas 3
  • 6. and unknown ideas is a matter of making connections between that catalog of concepts. In the spirit of that idea, I want to give you five concepts to think about - - I want to assert five concepts that you can think about today. And you can think about understanding the connections between them in relation to your job in this workshop. *** 1. Europeana is one of the most important projects in the world today In the 20th century – in the 19th and 18th and 17th centuries for that matter - - we made these wonderful institutions, these museums, libraries, archives, scientific organizations, knowledge institutions. And nobody told us we had to make these things. We felt compelled to make them as a human race, as a species. I think these institutions and what they represent in our genome is a part of our operating system - - part of the operating system of society. And we made them out of the tools we had available to us, out of the materials we had available to us - - bricks and mortar and iron and glass and big marble columns and magnificent spaces in the middle of our cities. And also quiet, dark rooms - - filled with shelves and drawers of 4
  • 7. magnificent and unrivaled examples of human creativity and insight. And samples of the natural world, the scientific world. But we have new tools now. We have very new tools now, available to us today, that we didn’t have 3 or 4 years ago, let alone 30 or 40 or 300 or 400 years ago. And it’s really important that somebody figure out how to do the work that society expects us to do - - needs us to do - - in our institutions, with these new tools. Because the tools are… I won’t say more powerful, but… powerful and meaningful in a way that our old tools just are not. And I think this concept of a commons—and what Europeana is doing and stands for—really paves the way, more strongly than any other initiative I know of. So that’s concept 1. 2. Europeana won’t succeed by trying to be great Concept 2 is that Europeana won’t succeed by trying to be great. I want you to resist the temptation –the incredible gravitational pull—of trying to make Europeana the strongest, biggest, bestest, most bad- assedest portal in the world. Most of your success will come through making other people great - - by being a supporter of the passion and enthusiasm and the inquiry and intelligence and the verve of everyone else in the world. 5
  • 8. I’m remembering a conversation I had with an online video portal company, I think it was SchoolTube. They approached the Smithsonian wanting us to become involved in creating content for teachers and students. Our initial reaction was “Oh, we’re going make the best 2- minute videos that teachers will ever use.” And, I think when the end of the day came, most of us realized that the most powerful thing that we could do was “B-roll.” Was footage of George Washington’s (our famous “founding father”) battle uniform, or of the Washington Monument, or Dorothy’s slippers [from The Wizard of Oz] - - or resources that other people could use, teachers and students could use, to do their own work. So rather than manufacturing a complete vision of the future, or a complete vision of knowledge, or of creativity, ourselves, and delivering it through our portal down a one-way pipe to a passive audience… Maybe the most powerful thing we could do was to provide a very simple platform that other people could use to be successful. And I think there’s a lot of wisdom and potential in that direction, for your thinking: what can you do that will make your citizens, your countrymen and countrywomen, be more successful? Maybe you take a humble role. A back seat. Maybe you’re just a simple platform that people use to come and get the resources that they need to use to weave the tapestry they’re building their lives with. …That’s number 2. 6
  • 9. 3. A commons is like a gumbo Number 3 is, there are a lot of ideas on the table. I saw Harry Verwayen’s excellent briefing paper - - Harry and staff and team’s excellent briefing paper - - and there are a lot of ideas on the table about what a commons is. I want to assert that those ideas are not a fixed formula, they’re more like the recipe for a soup, or a stew, or a Southern Louisiana gumbo. You can make substitutions. You don’t need all the ingredients. You can use different ratios of them depending on what job you’re trying to do today, or who your audience is. So don’t think too hierarchically or rigidly about “if we don’t do this it can’t be a commons.” I’m thinking about Italo Calvino’s book “Invisible Cities” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_Cities), imagining many different kinds of cities, some impossible, some real…Not all commons have to be the same or follow the same mould. And that leads me to idea connection catalog number 4… 4. Beware of certain words 7
  • 10. There are certain words that you need to think critically about - - you need to question your use of, because they mean radically different things to different people. “Culture” The first is “culture.” I’ve noticed when I come to Europe - - and this is true in the states as well - - when we talk about culture we talk about the opera…we’re thinking about the opera, we’re thinking about institutions. I learned a new term: “S.O.B’s” - - Symphonies, Operas, and Ballets - - the “S.O.B’s”!! You’re talking about institutions, and when you talk about serving culture, sometimes you’re thinking, without even meaning to, you’re talking about institutions and governments providing services to other institutions, that then provide culture for their citizens. That’s not always the best use of that term, or really what it means. I’m interested in the person who’s in their living room playing the harmonica. Or learning to play guitar, or singing in a community choir, or making art or writing poetry - - those individual makers or creators or imaginers in your populations that you serve. Sometimes culture is about what they’re doing. The institutions of the 20th century had a hard time finding and relating to those people. But now those people can find each other, and they can find you, and that redefines that term “culture.” 8
  • 11. “Audience” Another term is “Audience.” Is Europeana’s audience other institutions? Is it your 2,200 institutional partners? Or are they the citizens, that get served? And then, which sub-audience of those citizens? I think we’re inarguably in a Long Tail environment where you have hundreds or thousands of niche audiences. So as you talk today, be exceptionally clear about what you mean when you say the word “audience.” Who is that? “Access” Another danger word is “access.” As in, “We’re going to provide access.” Access is not the same as use. It’s not the same as sharing. Access usually, in the parlance of museums and libraries and archives, means, “You can come, and ‘access’ our stuff, on our terms, through our pipe.” [As a point-of-reference, I had a conversation with the registrar of a massive natural history collection a few months ago. She stated, categorically, that her museum provided “free and open access” to their 9
  • 12. online collections. In fact, her museum only releases metadata and digital images of collection items under a full “copyright, all rights reserved” status, and images are only released in low resolution. But to her, this constituted “free and open access” because her museum was not charging a fee to access these materials online.] And that, maybe, is not the most productive way of thinking about access in terms of a cultural commons. Along those lines I think we imagine the future as having us [our institutions] be a hub, still, but with a lot of spokes: people will have to come to us to access the things they need. But maybe the best role for us is not as a hub, surrounded by spokes, but as one of the endpoints. Part of a network of peers. “Engagement” The last term I want you to think about is “engagement.” Often when we talk about engagement we talk about you, out there, the public, coming and being engaged with us, with our stuff, on our terms. That’s not what I think a 20 year old would think “engagement” means today. Engagement is a two-way pipe. Engagement is peer-to-peer (without institutional mediators, hubs). 10
  • 13. Engagement is on terms your users are defining on their own, without you, every day. So think about the bias of that term, engagement, when it comes up. 5. Think like investors The last connection I want to bring up is… “pride” is not the word… but I’m very proud to know that you all are there today, as investors. You’re investing your own time, your energy, the reputation of your institutions. You could be doing anything with this time today, but you’re investing it in helping think through the European Cultural Commons. Think like investors. Where are you going to put your resources? When do you want payoff for that? When do you want benefits from that? Where do you want to be a month from now? Where do you want to be a year from now? Really press the urgency of that investor thinking. I think there’s so much you can do now, so much you can do in the short term. Many of you have heard me repeat something I heard somewhere else, 11
  • 14. Think big. Start small. Move fast. …But move. Do what you can, but do it. *** And on that note, maybe I’ll get back to my hurricane preparation. It’s Sunday [October 28, 2012], things are starting to get cold here, the weather is coming from a strange direction. Probably as your workshop is happening we’ll be hunkered inside my house, without electricity, hoping that the roof doesn’t blow off. So enjoy warm and sunny Cyprus and…I’m just thrilled, I’m overwhelmed and thrilled at the direction you’re headed, and the rest of us, the rest of the world, is cheering you on. So go get ‘em. [Recorded October 28, 2012, in Falls Church, VA] 12
  • 15. Some additional notes/references Helping other people succeed This meme has been around for a while, and is deeply connected with the Web 2.0 movement: see Tim O’Reilly’s seminal What is Web 2.0 essay [http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html] , and his recent, excellent post on LinkedIn, It's Not About You: The Truth About Social Media Marketing [http://www.linkedin.com/today/post/article/20121002122119- 16553-it-s-not-about-you-the-truth-about-social-media- marketing?goback=.ptf_] Kathy Sierra’s ideas about the changing relationship between customers and brands (and institutions for that matter) deeply resonate with me and have been a kind of sigil that I’ve used to unlock a lot of new thinking. I talk about Kathy’s “every user is a hero in their own epic journey” tweet in nearly ever talk I give, most recently here: Open Digital Heritage: Doing Hard Things Easily, at Scale (p. 3) [http://www.slideshare.net/edsonm/michael-edson-open-digital- heritage-doing-hard-things-easily-at-scale-text-version ] Hubs and spokes I was thinking about Clay Shirky’s writing about the newspaper industry here: Institutions, Confidence, and the News Crisis [http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2011/12/institutions-confidence- and-the-news-crisis/ ], 13
  • 16. “All of this seems to offer the grandmotherly option between Starkman and the FON crew — “You’re both right, dear. We need institutions and we need experiments.” Even given this hybridization, though, our views diverge: Plan A assumes that experiments should be spokes to the newspapers’ hub, their continued role as the clear center of public interest journalism assured, and on the terms previously negotiated. Plan B follows Jonathan Stray’s observations about the digital public sphere: in a world where Wikipedia is a more popular source of information than any newspaper, maybe we won’t have a clear center anymore. Maybe we’ll just have lots of overlapping, partial, competitive, cooperative attempts to arm the public to deal with the world we live in. Some of the experiments going on today, small and tentative as they are, will eventually harden into institutional form, and that development will be as surprising as the penny press subsidizing journalism for seven generations. The old landscape had institutions and so will the new one, but this doesn’t imply continuity.” Also, Brewster Kahle, in Interview: Brewster Kahle on Radio Free Culture [http://freemusicarchive.org/member/jason/blog/Interview_Brewster _Kahle_on_Radio_Free_Culture ] 14
  • 17. “…we’re really organized toward having many winners. We want to have many publishers, many libraries, many authors who make money. And everyone is a reader. So the idea of having lots of winners and no central points of control is how we got here on the internet. It’s why Creative Commons is kind of an interesting approach, why open source has been working well. The world wide web doesn’t have central points of control. This is just the way to make a robust, evolving, environment.” I’ve unpacked the ideas around hub-and-spoke vs. lots of hubs and lots of spokes here: Lego Beowulf and the Web of Hands and Hearts, (p. 11) [http://www.slideshare.net/edsonm/michael-edson-lego-beowulf-and- the-web-of-hands-and-hearts-for-the-danish-national-museum-awards- 13444266 ] “And it's important to emphasize that as it's shown, this network of connections—this learning network—shows us, the Institution, at the middle. But these are not just one way connections from us in the middle outward to our audience on the periphery. These are two-way connections between us and The People Formerly Known as the Audience (a phrase widely attributed to NYU professor Jay Rosen)—between us and everyone else in the world. 15
  • 18. To press the point even further, the most important part of this knowledge network, this new learning model, aren't the links between the few of us who work at memory institutions. The really powerful links are those that connect "our" audience members to each other. Perhaps the most powerful place for us, as museums, in this diagram is at the side, as generous and helpful guides, catalysts, and conveners—as co- participants—rather than as owners or monopolists.” 16