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Michael Edson @ Walker Art Center: What is a Commons


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annotated/footnoted talk given at the Walker Art Center's "Opening the Field" celebration in Minneapolis, MN, 6/2/2010. The talk goes through some of the reasons why the Smithsonian Commons project is important to accomplishing the Smithsonian's mission, and what the characteristics of a commons are or might be...

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Michael Edson @ Walker Art Center: What is a Commons

  1. 1. What is a Commons?<br />A short talk for<br />Opening the Field<br />Walker Art Center<br />6/2/2010<br />Michael Edson<br />Director, Web and New Media Strategy<br />Smithsonian Institution<br />Note: this short talk was developed for the Walker Art Center's Opening the Field event on June 3rd, 2010. ( My job was to speak first and give an overview of what a digital commons is or might be. These remarks draw heavily from my work on the Smithsonian's Web and New Media Strategy and the Smithsonian Commons project, and of course on the work of the many giants of the commons movement upon whose shoulders we stand. I've included endnotes and links wherever possible, and there's a list of references at the end. –Michael Edson, 6/2/2010<br />Update: there's now a video of me presenting this talk at the walker: My part starts after the introductions, around minute 12. –Michael Edson, 6/15/2010<br />I'm Michael Edson. I'm the Director of Web and New Media Strategy at the Smithsonian Institution, and I'm leading a new project called the Smithsonian Commons. My job this evening is to establish some assertions or givens about what a digital commons is or might be. Think of me as DJ Mike, laying down a beat for the def jam to follow… I'm about to open up a fire hydrant of ideas on you, but if you miss something, don't worry, this talk, with footnotes and links, is up online, along with related talks, papers, and slide shows.<br /> <br />I grew up in Washington, D.C. I was into Art and science, and the Smithsonian was pretty much the coolest thing around. <br />Any time I wanted to, I could walk downtown and just wander in and out of free museums, letting my curiosity take me wherever it wanted to go. In some ways you could say that I came of age at the Smithsonian—that as I became an independent young adult, the bricks-and-mortar Smithsonian—demonstrated the values I came to care about as a fully enfranchised citizen: it’s good to learn, to research and inquire, to be curious, to draw people into discussion, to provoke and even disrupt when necessary, to think across disciplines, to create… <br />I grew up in a city—in a country—that valued these things, and that chose to express those values by creating and maintaining—with the best tools available to it in the 19th and 20th centuries—an institution of buildings and staff and experts and collections and bureaucracy for manufacturing knowledge and delivering learning to a grateful and attentive public.<br />And it was good. It helped me become the citizen I am today. But…it was before the World Wide Web. <br />The Smithsonian Institution has a new 5-year strategic plan that articulates four grand challenges. <br />Unlocking the mysteries of the universe, understanding and sustaining a biodiverse planet, valuing world cultures, and understanding the American experience. Not a modest checklist for five years!<br />And I love this strategy. I love this strategy because it talks about doing difficult, audacious, important work in society. Work that matters.<br />But from where we stand now, deep in the heart of this wonderful rich disruptive digital age, the crazy new " logic of digital technology" raises certain first-order questions about how we work on these grand challenges. <br />Where is this work going to take place? <br />What kinds of organization, infrastructure, platforms will be needed to support this work?<br />What is the organizational change model? How will change happen? What will change look like when people come to in the morning? <br />Who will be the innovators? The connectors? The drivers of change? <br />And, ultimately, who will be the beneficiaries?<br />The tools of the last century will be important to us. But every plot twist, mystery, and love scene in the story of how the Smithsonian will do its job now, seems to weave its way through the idea of a digital Smithsonian Commons. <br />So what is a commons?<br />A commons is a set of resources maintained in the public sphere for the use and benefit of everyone. <br />Usually, a commons is created when a property owner decides that a given set of resources—grass for grazing sheep, forests for parkland, software code, or intellectual property—will be more valuable if freely shared than if restricted. <br />In the law, and in our understanding of the way the world works, we recognize that no idea stands alone, and that all innovation is built on the ideas and innovations of others. When creators, scientists, inventors, educators, artists, researchers, business people, entrepreneurs—when everyone has access to the raw materials of knowledge, innovation flourishes. <br />Conversely, unnecessarily restricted content is a barrier to innovation. This is the anti-commons, a thicket of difficulties. If you can’t find an idea, can’t understand its context, can’t leverage your social network, however you define it, to share and add value to it, and if you can’t get legal permission to use, re-use, or make it into something new, then knowledge and innovation suffer. <br />Unnecessarily restricted content is like a virus that spreads through the internet, making the scaffolding upon which we build each generation of new ideas less and less stable.<br />I like to think of a commons as a kind of organized workshop where the raw materials of knowledge and innovation can be found and assembled into new things.<br />Or, if you need to build a digital commons, as I do, perhaps it's best to think of a commons as a fortifying gumbo that's made with various combinations of 12 ingredients. Think of the next few minutes as a cooking show, and I will be the perky television host who suggests to you, what you might put in your commons gumbo.<br />1. Federated<br />A commons brings things together that would otherwise be separate. The Smithsonian Collections Search Center brings together over 4.2 million object records from more than 23 Smithsonian collection information systems. <br />2. Designed for you<br />Software developer and social media thought leader Kathy Sierra says that every user is a hero in their own epic journey. The job of the Smithsonian Commons is not to broadcast our accomplishments to a grateful public: it's to help you succeed on your epic quest through life. (See the Smithsonian Web and New Media Strategy at <br />3. Findable<br />It doesn't do much good to have a bunch of stuff in a commons if you can't find anything. The crowdsourced stock photo site iStockPhoto does a better job helping me find stuff than any museum, library, or archive site I know. Industrial supplier McMaster Carr is a standout as well. and [AR – check link]<br />4. Shareable<br />The whole purpose of putting resources into a commons is so that they can be shared and used. A commons is shareable by default. On the Brooklyn Museum Web site, sharing is built right into the platform. <br />5. Reusable<br />Intellectual property policies in a commons are uniform and clearly stated so users know, in advance—without having to ask or beg—that they can incorporate resources from the commons into new works. On Flickr, the copyright and permissions are stated clearly, everywhere. <br />6. Free<br />“Free resources are crucial to innovation and creativity” says Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig. Free, Findable, and Shareable form a particularly powerful combination. The Internet Archive says on their home page that " like a paper library, we provide free access…" <br />7. Bulk DownloadSometimes people need a lot of something, or all of something, to solve a problem. On the Powerhouse Museum's Web site, you can download their entire collection database with one click. <br />8. Machine Readable<br />Sometimes you need to be able to write a program to work with data—particularly when you've got a lot of it. The information in a commons needs to be understandable to computer programs—machine readable. is designed to encourage digital mashups through machine readable formats. <br />9. High Resolution<br />A commons should make available, for free, the highest quality, highest resolution resources possible. On NASA's Web site, you can download photographs so big that you can see how individual grains of Martian soil were compressed by the wheels of the Mars Rover. The paltry images on most museum Web sites thwart the efforts of researchers and enthusiasts, and undermine our attempts to let the drama and importance of our collections shine through. <br />10. Collaboration without Control<br />Because resources are free, high quality, and sharing and reuse are encouraged, new kinds of collaborative work can take place—are taking place—without needing to involve lawyers, contracts, and bureaucrats. <br />Clay Shirky, in Here Comes Everybody, writes “we are living in the middle of a remarkable increase in our ability to share, to cooperate with one another, and to take collective action, all outside the framework of traditional institutions and organization …Getting the free and ready participation of a large, distributed group with a variety of skills has gone from impossible to simple.”<br />MIT Open Courseware has case studies of exactly these kinds of collaborations. and <br />11. Network EffectsIn a commons designed with network effects in mind you get a virtuous cycle: the more the commons is used, the better it becomes, and the better it becomes, the more people will find and use it. Over 180,000 people have added map data to the OpenStreetMap project, and those contributions have created a powerful resource that can be used and re-used by anyone, for free. <br />12. The Public Domain<br />The public domain is important. James Boyle writes that the Public Domain is not “some gummy residue left behind when all the good stuff has been covered by property law. The public domain is the place where we quarry the building blocks of our culture.” <br />13. Trust<br />After thinking about these 12 dimensions for a couple of months I've decided that there's a 13th, and that's trust. <br />Wired magazine founding editor Kevin Kelly said " the network economy is founded on technology, but can only be built on relationships. It starts with chips and ends with trust." <br />The Smithsonian is in the forever business. By putting something in the Smithsonian Commons—be it a cultural treasure, or a folk song, a fossil of a bug, a lecture, or a community—we're asking people to trust us. We're not going to scam you. We're not going to violate your privacy. We're going to be honest about what we do and don't know, we're going to be open to new ideas and points of view, we're going to help each other figure out the world, and these promises are good, forever. Museums and libraries and archives some of the few organizations in our culture that enter into those kinds of promises, and we take that responsibility very seriously. <br />This, then, is the 13 ingredient gumbo <br />We are just starting the process of building the Smithsonian Commons—it's very complex and there are a lot of unknowns and surprises down the road. <br />To help people imagine how the Smithsonian Commons will help us all achieve our goals and to help us think through the steps of building and refining this vision we've built a series of prototypes—little movies really—that show what the future commons might look like as seen through the eyes of four different kinds of users: <br /><ul><li>A museum visitor
  2. 2. a 4th grade teacher gathering materials about Theodore Roosevelt for a classroom activity
  3. 3. a millennial, or digital native, who is mostly seeing Smithsonian content out on the social Web
  4. 4. and an amateur astronomer, a citizen scientist who is incorporating Smithsonian research into his own Web projects and mashups</li></ul>Let me end my part of tonight's festivities by showing you this prototype of how an amateur astronomer might use the Smithsonian Commons. (Available soon at<br />***<br />Further Reading<br />These works were not directly cited, but may be of interest.<br />Edson M. (2009) Imagining the Smithsonian Commons. Video: <br />Edson, M., and R. Cherry, Museum Commons. Tragedy or Enlightened Self-Interest?. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2010: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2010. Consulted April 6, 2010. and on slideshare at <br />And I'm always surprised when I find I haven't cited either Tim O'Reilly's " What is Web 2.0" or Chris Anderson's The Long Tail. They're required reading for those who seek to be well informed about digital strategy and culture.<br />Anderson, Chris. The Long Tail. November, 2004. (This is the starter article from Wired magazine. For more, I recommend his book of the same name.)<br />O'Reilly, Tim. " Web 2.0: Design Patterns and Business Models for the Next Generation of Software." O' 9/30/2005. <br />Works Cited<br />Boyle, James. The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2008. <br />Eight Principles of Open Government Data. December, 2007. <br />Fair Use in the U.S. Economy. Computer and Communications Industry Association, 4/27/2010. <br />Green, David L. Ed. iQuote: Brilliance and Banter from the Internet Age. CT: Lyons Press, 2008<br />Kamenetz, Anya, DIY U: Edpunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Chelsea Green Publishing, Vermont. 2010.<br />Lessig, Lawrence. The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World. New York: Random House, 2001. <br />Online Maps: Everyman Offers New Directions. New York Times, 11/16/2009. Available online at <br />Shirky, Clay. Here Comes Everybody. New York: Hyperion, 2008.<br />