SMK's publications

Franz Helm (ca. 1500-1567), Treatise on artillery and gunpowder, Southeast Germany, late 16th century, Manuscript on paper, in ink and paint, fol. 125v, LJS 254, Lawrence J. Schoenberg Collection, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania, CC BY 4.0.



Michael opens this anthology by establishing why it is crucial for the cultural heritage sector to seize the opportunity offered by the Internet and digitization to reach global populations and make a difference in their lives. Through many years of pioneering efforts within the field of digital technologies, and generous sharing of expertise and advice, Michael has inspired institutions worldwide to dare working more openly and inclusively with the users’ knowledge and creativity.

My job in this essay is not about tact or charm. My job is to sail a gunboat up your river and fire a warning shot over your city.


The future is here. What are you going to do?

I gave my talk about “going boldly into the present” and the urgent need for change at the first Sharing is Caring conference in November, 2011 – more than 700 days ago. During those 700 days, most museums, libraries, archives, and cultural organizations didn’t change much: if you visited one in 2011, met with the staff, and returned again today, you would be hard pressed to detect a significant difference. Many of the biggest and best organizations were working on new strategies in 2011, carefully measuring their steps into the digital age, and many of those plans have not been finished or implemented. Others spent the last 700 days on small digital experiments without risking much, asking much, or expecting much in return. And while we were in committee meetings, plotting our slow, careful course, the future changed – accelerated and crashed into us – and the world in which we need to succeed became something else.

In the 700 days since my talk, the world’s population grew by 140 million people – 200,000 individuals a day – each with the right to be educated; each with the right to access and shape their culture. 476 million people became new Internet users in the last 700 days, and 872 million people – more than the entire population of the European Union nations, Canada, and the United States combined – became new mobile phone subscribers. Facebook enrolled its one billionth member last year. Facebook is only ten years old, but if it were a country, it would now be the third largest nation on earth. Wikipedia, approaching its two billionth edit, is barely a teenager.

The cost of a computer chip – perhaps the most disruptive technology ever made – fell by half in the last 700 days. Computer chips have become 50% cheaper (or two-times more powerful) every 700 days for the last 50 years, and they are expected to keep doing so at least through mid-century, at which point they will be so cheap and powerful that if I were to describe the societal implications here you would likely stop reading this essay in disbelief.

The exponentially falling cost and rising power of computer chips also has a short-term consequence: it makes Internet access and technology affordable to more people. 2.4 billion people, 34% of humanity, are now online and connected. Even in the poorest parts of the world, it is not unusual to see pushcart vendors, rickshaw drivers, and even beggars with cell phones.

India, the world’s largest democracy, has a new “virtual middle class” of 300 million people who are profoundly poor, but who, for the first time, are claiming their full rights as citizens because they are connected to the Internet and can interact with government and fellow citizens as easily as their richer, more educated neighbors. 40,000 people from 113 countries just took Introduction to Sociology, online, for free, from Princeton University. 830,000 people from over 180 countries have contributed time and effort to citizen science projects through the Adler Planetarium’s Zooniverse website. The citizens of Iceland are crowdsourcing a new constitution. Users have translated the Mona Lisa’s Wikipedia page into 89 languages. The National Gallery of Denmark’s website features comments from Germany, Russia, Spain, New Zealand, India, South Africa, the Philippines, Egypt, Libya, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, and the United Kingdom: On one group of pages about the masterpieces of Danish art, comments by Danes are outnumbered by comments from other countries by 35:1.

Everywhere I look, I see the old rules about who has a voice, who does the work, and who gets to benefit being re-written on a global scale. It is amazing, but what surprises me most... is that we find it surprising at all. We have wanted this since the Enlightenment.

Our institutions are founded on the principle that knowledge and culture belong to everyone; that we will be a stronger, wiser, more resilient society if citizens understand their history; understand science – if they engage, ask questions, converse, learn, challenge, create, and do. We believe that culture isn’t something frozen in amber: culture only has meaning when it is alive in our minds, re-worked by our hands, and loved in our hearts.

While we’ve been in committee these last 700 days, advancing at the scale and speed of yesteryear, the next 700 days began. The future is ready for us now; hungry for our resources, craving our expertise, listening for what we have to say. It is our obligation – our privilege – to respond and serve. A few brave institutions lead the way, but even they must race to keep up.

And just outside the committee room – beyond the exhibition galleries; past the library stacks, classrooms, labs, and archives – another question looms: It isn’t what we do now that there are 2.4 billion of us online, it’s what will happen when the next 5 billion people join us.


Let’s get to work.

[2] Michael Edson, Adaptation of Franz Helm’s “Treatise on artillery and gunpowder” (Rare Book & Manuscript Library University of Pennsylvania LJS 254), 2013, CC BY 4.0

“I gave my talk”: See slides and a transcript of the talk, Let Us Go Boldly Into The Present, My Brothers and Sisters, at michael-edson-let-us-go-boldly-into-the-present-text-version, and the video at

“the world’s population grew by 140 million people”: 140 million is the rise in total global population, not to be confused with new births. Population data (as of mid-year, 2013) from US Census Bureau International Data Base, http://

“each with the right to be educated”: Statements about the educational expectations and the right to access and shape culture are direct references to the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, first adopted in 1948,, accessed 9 May 2013.

New Internet and mobile phone users:
Aggregate Internet and mobile phone data from International Telecommunications Union “2006-2013 ITC data for the world” spreadsheet at default.aspx, accessed 1 May 2013.

“Facebook enrolled its one billionth member”:
“Revealed: The third largest ‘country’ in the world – Facebook hits one billion users” by Rob Williams, 4 October 2012,, accessed 1 May 2013.

“Wikipedia, approaching its two billionth edit”:
Total edits in Wikimedia proj- ects:, accessed 1 May 2013.

“The cost of a computer chip”:
Think in terms of computers the size of bacteria. By mid-century, a $1,000 personal computer is likely to have a billion times more processing power than the combined brains of every person on earth. Kaku, Michio, The Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100, 2010, Doubleday, New York, p. 117. The doubling of the number of transistors that can fit on a computer chip every 18-24 months is known as Moore’s Law: I use 700 days as the period of doubling, roughly 23 months.

2.4 billion people online:
Aggregate Internet and mobile phone data from International Telecommunications Union “2006-2013 ITC data for the world” spreadsheet at, accessed 1 May 2013.

“Vendors, rickshaw drivers, and even beggars”: This is derived from a com- ment by journalism professor Dr. Jack Zibluk, 3 February 2013, on the article The Virtual Middle Class Rises, By Thomas L. Friedman, 2 February 2013, New York Times,, accessed 1 May 2013. Though there are six billion cell phone subscribers worldwide, most of these are simple “feature phones” that can send and receive SMS messages, but do not have Internet access. Falling chip prices are expected to bring Internet ready smart phones with cameras, video, GPS, WiFi etcetera within reach of current feature phone users in the not-too-distant future. A general discussion of this topic can be found in Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen’s The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), particularly in the introduction, pp. 4-8.

India’s virtual middle class: The Virtual Middle Class Rises, by Thomas L. Friedman, published 2 February 2013, New York Times,, accessed 1 May 2013.

Introduction to Sociology: Mitchell Duneier, the professor who taught this course, wrote: “When I give this lecture on the Princeton campus, I usually receive a few penetrating questions. In this case, however, within a few hours of posting the online version, the course forums came alive with hundreds of comments and questions. Several days later there were thousands... Within three weeks I had received more feedback on my sociological ideas than I had in a career of teaching, which significantly influenced each of my subsequent lectures and seminars.” Teaching to the World From Central New Jersey by Mitchell Duneier, Chronicle of Higher Education, 3 September 2012, accessed 6 May 2013.

Zooniverse: Http:// “Over 180 countries” is from 8 May 2013 correspondence with Arfon Smith, Director of Citizen Science, Adler Planetarium

Iceland crowdsourcing a new constitution: See “Iceland is Crowdsourcing Its New Constitution”, 10 June 2011, crowdsourcing-its-new-constitution/?utm_content=image&utm_medium=hp_carousel&utm_source=slide_4, accessed 6 May 2013.

The Mona Lisa’s Wikipedia page:, accessed 9 May 2013.

“The National Gallery of Denmark’s website”: Candidates for Google Gigapixel, National Gallery of Denmark (Statens Museum for Kunst), 20 November 2012,, accessed 7 May 2013. Note that these pages are are on the gallery’s Google+ site, not under the gallery’s main domain, but they are under the gallery’s full editorial control and I’m therefore depicting them as being part of the National Gallery of Denmark “website.” Of the 56 comments on this group of web pages, three comments were made by two individuals who identified themselves as living in Denmark; one of those is an employee of the gallery.

Updated: 26.apr.2018
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