Rob Prepares a Tome and a Talk for Toronto
by Robbie McClintock
Posted on StudyPlace as part of Emilia or, The City as Educator, Summer 2009.
Length: 18,550 words
Subject: What's on tap for Toronto?
Date: June 28, 2009
Oops, I guess I've got to say, Rob, now that Emilia is into discussing Plato with you, or perhaps since I hear you have Marx among others on your mind, maybe I should start, Hey Comrade!
Seriously, Meg says you're taking your talk in Toronto extra seriously. Will you fill me in on what's in store? I suspect it will be germane to our thinking about Em's options. Also, I've been asked to chair a faculty committee at Almamater this fall assessing undergraduate education there and recommending improvements. It's the price of a sabbatical, I guess — one comes back mentally refreshed, a condition too dangerous for the powers-that-be to allow to persist.
Subject: My Toronto talk
Date: July 2, 2009
Note, I don't start, Dear Son! I asked Em to call me Rob because I think its important to encourage kids to think of themselves as the peers of the authors they read and the people with whom they discuss ideas. Prevailing educational practices, especially in our high schools, keep students in a state of intellectual immaturity far too long, encouraging them to believe that education is simply soaking up what the text and the teacher seem to say. Addressing others as peers is an important step in taking responsibility for your own ideas.
I'm glad you're interested in my talk up in Toronto. I'll be giving it in a couple weeks and appreciate a chance to rehearse what I'll try to say. It's been a while since I've kicked off a conference like this and I have more time to talk in doing so than I've been used to — instead of a brief, pithy provocation, I have to say something substantive that will hold attention and get people thinking. I'm planning four parts for the talk. I think they add up to one view of what educators should be doing through our work in e-Learning, but I will have to do it suggestively because the full substance of each part would be too involved to address thoroughly. I'll stick to the first part in this email and if you are still interested, I'll continue with the others in later messages.
I'll start with a personal observation — that I've never been to Toronto before, but in talking there I feel I'm coming home. That's because separate formative strands in my intellectual development were all key elements in the Toronto school of communication theory. In graduate school, I read Eric Havelock, Harold Innis, and Marshall McLuhan, with both excitement and profit, at the time only dimly aware that both Innis and McLuhan were associated with the University of Toronto, while Havelock, however similar in spirit, did not appear to me at the time to link to them or to Toronto. Later, I saw that Havelock, a key influence on me, was an important part of the Toronto school.
Fairly early in graduate school, before you were born, I was studying Plato, especially the Republic, really seriously for the first time, and I got hold of Eric Havelock's Preface to Plato. It had just come out and I stumbled on it — bookstores were my real teachers, you know. Havelock illuminated Plato's educational concerns by showing how the development of alphabetic literacy in Greece facilitated the emergence of abstract reasoning. I found it immensely helpful, both in understanding Plato and in making sense of key changes in the history of education. Simultaneously, one of my teachers put me onto Innis's studies of empire and the biases of communications, which reinforced my reflections on reading Havelock. And in the mid 60s, someone with my interests couldn't avoid McLuhan, who one experienced as both tantalizing and aggravating, evoking many variations on "Yeah. . . but. . . that's absurd." For me, all this clicked into an understanding of Western educational history as a sweep of cultural aspiration punctuated by structuring transformations in the prevailing communications technologies — oral-epic performance, alphabetic literacy, iconographic popularization, printing, and perhaps electronic communications.
As you know, through my career, I've been out of sync with the prevailing belief that teachers are the essential agents of education. People err in believing that education results as teachers act on students to ensure that learning takes place. Every person, spontaneously and continuously, acquires knowledge, develops skills, and forms values. These actions constitute education and formal schooling and teachers, working in it, are part, an important part, of the context within which each of us conducts our education. Of course, in this context, teachers should teach, but should students simply learn what they have been taught? Teachers waft possibilities forth, and students act on those and many other possibilities to acquire their learning and culture. They have much in addition to learning to do — they think, question, criticize, accept, reject, wonder, and wander; they speculate, reflect, respect, aspire, mimic, and mock.
To me, it's portentous the way educators increasingly speak about learners, when referring to students. Students got called students because they are persons who study, to be zealous about something, devoted to it; in its original meaning students get deeply, passionately interested is things, engaged in them; students studying direct their attention and exert their effort and by doing so, they acquire their knowledge, skills, and values. Learners are far too passive, meek receivers — instead, they should be impassioned transformers of culture. My whole career has been committed to trying to make a place for study in a world of instruction, and historically I see the world of instruction to be a relatively modern development, dependent essentially on the availability of broadcast media. Print became the original broadcaster, but fairly late, when it became fully mechanized, and huge runs of identical books and newspapers made mass schooling and mass journalism possible. Innis understood this shift in the cultural implications of printing as it became a means of mass communication. I experienced a shift in the cultural uses of electronic media, but in the opposite direction, moving away from mass communication, with the shift from analog to digital processing. When I began to work with digital text editing in the mid 70s, you were only eleven and you may not realize how distrustful of electronic communication I had been before that. I thought twentieth-century technologies — radio, film, television — were greatly amplifying the use of broadcasting to encompass everyone into a more numbing world of instruction, one obsessed with teaching and learning, inimical to free-ranging study. The media were the messages and they all went from a few, self-interested communicators to a passive public, thoroughly instructed on what to wear, think, and eat; when to laugh, where to work, and how to vote. Like Harold Innis, contra Marsahll McLuhan, I then judged that electronic technologies were exacerbating the cultural tendencies educators needed to resist.
In 1975, I had my first direct experience with the digital variant of electronic technologies, not through number crunching, but text editing. You took it for granted, but my humanist friends thought I had gone batty when they saw me sitting in front of a big cathode-ray tube, proportioned to a dark 8.5x11 page in portrait orientation, filling it with sickly green letters and words, with dual 10-inch floppy drives wheezing at my right, recording what I wrote in digital code. "But look!" I'd reply to their raillery, as I pressed a button and a printer to the left with its daisywheel spinning furiously, sailing right, zapping back left, producing flawless copy at 180 words a minute. To me, it was an epiphany. Here was a writer's tool. It put the user in control. And I could tell that much, much more would be coming down the pike. From that Vydec, I learned early on to perceive digital technologies as a great opportunity to rebuild the place for study in the world of instruction. Soon, in the early 80's, the microcomputer strengthened my intuition, derived from working with early electronic text editors that computer systems could be powerful tools of study. Each person would be able to appropriate substantial control over their intellectual lives by making good use of digital technologies. By the end of the decade with the emerging Internet, and through the 90s with the rise of the World Wide Web, this intuition became a solid conviction, one coming to be widely shared by others. The role of personal choice in communication immensely expanded with the astounding drop in the cost of MIPS, of storage capacity, of network capacity, along with an equally astounding increase in rates of retrieval, processing, and transmission, combined with the availability of an infrastructure for it all that is pervasive and global. A third of a century has elapsed between my starting to work with the Vydec and my talking to the e-Learning audience in Toronto, and in that third of a century, historically a mere instant, the prospects for study, for making personal inquiry the effective engine of education, have vastly improved.
Vastly improved. . . . , but the prospects for study have not become assured. Like those in the Toronto school of communication theory, I am a technological determinist, a conviction about which you needle me, more than enough, I dare say. But neither Havelock, Innis, & company, nor I, are technological determinists in the tight and narrow sense, a bed into which you sometimes squish me. Technologies, any material system for action, affords determinate capacities and imposes limits on what one can and cannot do with them. But these capacities and limits do not determine the character and quality of the human lives we lead. The affordances of communications systems determine spectra of possibilities. They set limits on what is and is not feasible or susceptible to effective practice. By themselves, they are not sufficient cause of the actualities, however. Technological determinants are not the only ones at work at any historical juncture. And they act to create and limit possibilities; they do not determine the particularities. Leadership, historical inertia, the flux of fortuna — epidemics, depressions, wars — all contribute to actual historical outcomes. Consequently, as technological determinists, we find ourselves, not marionettes acting out a foretold fate, but autonomous persons working in the midst of an open historical drama. Developments in communications have set the scene of this drama by opening up new possibilities for the conduct of life, without assuring that those new possibilities will be realized, or whether they will be rejected, or precisely which of numerous possible realizations will be the one that we, the actors, bring to pass. Countless persons will, on the basis of principle and interest, line themselves up on one side of the other in the drama, in one way and another. In time, their interactions will work out actualities, relative to the possibilities, some mix of new and old, with one or the other predominating. The implications for the quality of human life will vary greatly according to precisely what the mix may be. All this indicates that my technological determinism is such that I cannot predict how the historical drama in which we are players is going to turn out.
For this reason, through my talk, I don't want to predict outcomes. I'll try instead to clarify what is at stake as we work in the field of e-Learning. Most, perhaps all members of my audience, will be committed, like me, to actualizing new educational possibilities through the use of digital communications technologies. In Toronto I will be preaching to the choir and I don't want to do so simply by telling others once more what they already know full well. I want to say something that may not already be clear to all by sharpening our shared sense about what is at stake in this historical drama in which we are playing our parts in a shared effort to work out how it will end.
Like the members of the Toronto school, I am somewhat unusual among educational technologists in that I am a historian. Most of us working with technology in education have backgrounds as IT specialists, psychologists and cognitive researchers, engineers or other technical specialists, or policy researchers and evaluators. Such grounding helps a person act prospectively, but it does not make very clear what is at stake in the historical drama as future possibilities may permit us to transcend past necessities. Insofar as these stakes are unclear, we may ironically be susceptible to strengthening historical inertia even though we think we are furthering the prospects for change. That's essentially the topic for the second part of my talk — why educators need a clear historical vision in developing the pedagogical uses of information and communications technologies.
I'm still drawing these thoughts together, so I'll stop here for now.
Subject: Your intellectual prehistory, a revelation!
Date: July 3rd
Here I'm really tempted to start, "Dear Dad" — people have a tendency to think of their parents as having sprung fully formed into existence about the time they themselves start having well-formed memories of them. What came before is terra incognita. Mine basically start with you showing me how that Vydec worked, occasionally letting me use it for homework. My teacher couldn't understand how an eleven-year-old could type a three-page story without a smudge of whiteout! You have your Toronto talk off to a good start. I look forward hearing how you are going to frame the topic of historical vision.
A few years ago I read parts of a book of essays about Harold Innis and the New Century. I skipped quite a few which were on fragmentary aspects of Innis's life and work, but one has stuck with me. It contrasted Innis, as a spokesperson for the importance of time and a developed historical sense, with McLuhan, who celebrated the post-modern immersion in the now and the indiscriminate subsumption of things past into the present. If I recall correctly, it was called "No Future." McLuhan's strength was synchronic. Perhaps that was the secret of his popularity, being in touch with his time, but it left him vulnerable to changes, technological and social. Innis's strengths were diachronic and he drew his insights by observing the patterns of change and continuity as people used media of communication in dynamic historical contexts. Life is like a bicycle — it needs movement to balance and steer. When action in the here and now seems to be everything, one sees neither past nor future and one loses the sense of historical movement.
I confess that a lot of e-Learning stuff I hear about on campus turns me off because it strangely has too much of this no-future quality to it. Much seems so busy recapitulating what academics do and long have done in their teaching. Everyone is busy with this application and that program, reinventing present practice without much attention to how we might radically depart from it. MIT's OpenCourseWare program is a case in point. With great effort, it puts the institution online as it is and tells us little about what it has been or where it is going. It would be better were the present simply the push on the pedals, creating movement for someone aware of where they came from and where they are trying to go.
What the librarians and some research teams have been doing with digital technologies enthuses me much more. By leaps and bounds libraries are becoming more and more powerful as places of study — I found that out during my sabbatical in Berlin. I could use Almamater's libraries more effectively from the other side of the Atlantic than it had been possible for me to do a few years ago when I was on campus and in the library itself. It would be a major advance if all the authoritative sets of data, along with the digital tools for working with them, were freely online for anyone to use as best they could. That would permit novices to learn with the same resources that experts use.
We all hope you and Meg will come by tomorrow for some burgers in honor of the 4th. I'd like to tell you more about my sabbatical in Berlin.
Subject: Need for historical vision
Date: July 6, 2009
Sorry to have missed Em on the 4th, but Meg and I understand that at 17 the peerage calls. Thanks for not making me talk about my talk — it's always hard to do so at a party and whenever I try, it leaves me feeling my presentation will be a disaster.
I share you're uneasiness with much of what happens in e-Learning. A lower-case 'i' prefix is as good as a little 'e' and I'd like to recast work in e-Learning into work at i-Study! You are right, I think, that Innis (and Havelock, too) had a much fuller historical sense than McLuhan did, although McLuhan was certainly more attuned to the tastes of his time. Perhaps it was natural as the first two were historians and McLuhan a critic.
In academia the pressures of promotion and tenure have destroyed the sense of a historical mission. We have a huge collective interest in throwing out all past work every decade or so in order to keep the opportunities for original scholarship open. In field after field, current scholarship doesn't really supersede the heritage of past accomplishments: first we misrepresent the heritage, then we reject it for deficiencies the misrepresentations purport to reveal, and finally we ignore the heritage having declared it unworthy of attention in sound scholarly work. But I'm venting here. It is not what I have to say in Toronto. My previous email explained how I would open my talk in Toronto by recognizing the importance of medium theory, as thinkers like Innis and Havelock had developed it, in thinking creatively about the future uses of information technologies in education. In this email, I want to develop the ideas I'll center on in the second part of my talk — the importance of historical vision. Historical initiative is shifting in this century, I think, from the realm of political economy towards that of culture and education. Educators are getting the burden and opportunity to exert historic leadership in our time. To so so well, educators need to generate an inspiring vision of twenty-first century democracy, a cultural democracy, one that will enable all peoples to coordinate our differences, to pursue our various aspirations in ways that move beyond the divisions and limits of the present.
For those of us disposed to act as educators, this need conduces towards ideas about continuous, life-long education, an idea that began to take form in more advantaged European cities in the second half of the nineteenth century. As an idea, it has continued to spread and to develop since then, but without much real practical effect. With respect to practice, educators seem to have become fixated on marginal improvements in schools and universities. This fixation is symptomatic of our loss of historical vision and our lack of historical vision will channel us into a churning effort that leads us nowhere. All the criticism moaning about how schools and universities are failing to meet the educational imperatives generated by economic competition lack sufficient sense of historical movement.
See for instance, David J. Hoff, "Schools Struggling to Meet Key goal on Accountability,"" Education Week Online: December 19, 2008 (Print: Jannuary 7, 2009, Vol. 28, Issue 16, Pages 1,14-15), (http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2008/12/18/16ayp.h28.html?qs=failing+schools) and the associated table from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, "SCHOOLS - ADEQUATE YEARLY PROGRESS AND IMPROVEMENT STATUS UNDER NCLB", (http://www.edweek.org/media/16ayp-schools.pdf)
Over several centuries, formal educational agencies — schools and universities — have expanded and perfected their programs to the point where they are working close to the limits of their systemic potentials. In particular, schooling, the principle of using schools to train the young in the fundamentals of the culture, is a highly developed, highly optimized agency of action. The public and its leaders are wrongly perceiving numerous schools to be a slough of incompetence, each ineffective in its functions and all thereby causing society to fall short in doing the instructional job that must be done. For 2007-08, over 35 per cent of American schools did not make adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind accountability. The problem in reality is not that some schools are failing schools; it is that schooling, as our only educational strategy and system, fails with a significant portion of the population. Like any institutional system, schooling has its functional capacities and its functional limits. Children stumbling through the process with scant benefit and teachers struggling with miserable results does not mean that the children are uneducable nor the teachers incompetent; it means that the system of schooling has been pushed to the limits of its possible effectiveness. Schools are doing what they can do, accomplishing very nearly all that schools can accomplish. The problem is that their doing all they can do falls far short of what can and should be done educationally for all in a stable and just democracy. Far beyond schooling for all as the principal locus of educational effort, we need to form and implement a vision of educational practice that supports the full development of each person's potentialities throughout the fullness of life.
As educators, I believe we have, perhaps latent or dormant within us, an inspiring historical vision of educational possibility. The basic thought is simple and powerful: a fully developed, twenty-first-century democracy will be a cultural democracy in which all people have continuous opportunities, effective and meaningful, personally and in collaboration with their peers, to form and develop their human potentialities throughout their lives. I think something like this aspiration moves us as educators, especially those of us working with electronic technologies, but I think we inhibit this sensibility in ourselves because we live in a time in which the dominant public mindset is very cautious, primarily disposed only to take incremental action of specific problems. Of late, there have been hopeful signs that this timidity may be giving way to a more affirmative sense of possibility, but it is still fashionable to eschew grand visions, to call them totalizing, meaning that they commit those who hold them to totalitarian proclivities.
Of course, this caution is understandable. Speculating on the matter, we might say that the modern, visionary drive to improve the human condition has achieved a great deal in the more advantaged parts of the world. And currently, in pursuit of it, numerous real improvements in material conditions for may people are still taking place. Nevertheless, I suspect that people very widely feel, deep down, that this world, even in its more advantaged parts, is neither very stable nor very just. And people are aware that things can fall apart — as they did in the first half of the last century. Consequently, we have become distrustful of the big visions, for the past pursuit of them has left a lot to be accomplished while bringing much destruction in its wake. In response, people have learned to concentrate on small projects that make manageable improvements on particular features of practical life. As in other spheres of activity, those of us working with information and communications technologies feel this post-modern disquiet, I think, in deeply constrictive ways. The uneasiness is very general and in a historical irony, it has deepened and spread over the past 40 years, relative to the prior 40, even though, during the decades from 1930 to 1970 or so, people endured far more than their share of troubles — the Great Depression, World War II, and all sorts of post-war uncertainties and conflicts. Nevertheless, people then pursued large visions and taxed themselves heavily in shared efforts to bring them about. As the conditions for the success of these efforts matured, the will to keep at it flagged. Why do expectations about possibilities often run counter to the objective situation — angst shaking people when their real prospects are strong and confidence swelling despite serious difficulties.
It is demonstrable, I think, that historical vision has declined among educators. One can sense it by comparing, for instance, the 1946 Harvard Report on General Education in a Free Society to the 1983 report on A Nation at Risk. The former concerned the historical problem of achieving and preserving effective self-governance in complex societies and examined the educational challenges incurred by peoples who wished to preserve their political autonomy in the face of the diverse vicissitudes that polities face over time. The latter ignored historical problems and depicted schooling as a component of comparative economic power: ineffective schooling put the nation a risk, a failure of pedagogical omission and commission, evident by comparing the current statistical results registered by key age cohorts in various nations on narrow measures of school achievement. This decline of historical vision is not uniquely american. I want to suggest to my listeners, a highly international audience, that this loss of historical vision probably characterizes educational policy-making the world around. Certainly in Europe it is evident. To establish two points of comparison, consider two sources that both pay substantial attention to the comprehensive prospects for education in Europe. As one pole, consider a work published in 1970 by the Council of Europe, Permanent Education. At the other pole, look at the European Commission's website on Education & Training. In one sense, the studies published by the Council of Europe in 1970 were the forerunners of the current policies and programs sponsored by the European Commission. But a comparison shows stark differences. Permanent Educationwas all about historical vision and weak on specific implementation through program and policy. The current efforts of the European Commission are the reverse — all policy and program, no vision.
European Commission > Education & training > Who we are > Our mission. "Our mission" http://ec.europa.eu/education/who-we-are/doc324_en.htm (retrieved, July 11, 2009)
Overall, the Commission stipulates a simple objective for its Lifelong Learning Programme, the single umbrella for all its education and training activities: "to enable individuals at all stages of their lives to pursue stimulating learning opportunities across Europe." This objective is safely salutary, but neither it, nor much else on the site, conveys a sense of historical purpose indicating why pursuing these stimulating learning opportunities might be meaningful or worthwhile. Everything is concrete, operational, and measurable, except the reasons why.
European Commission > Education & training > > Lifelong Learning Programme > Lifelong Learning programme overview. "A single umbrella for education and training programmes", http://ec.europa.eu/education/lifelong-learning-programme/doc78_en.htm (retrieved, July 11, 2009)
Realistically, the European Commission has recognized that it has to pursue an "open method of coordination" by promoting communication between the education ministries of member states, which are the most significant sources of monies and programs. In addition, the Commission itself pursues its own initiatives, which it has drawn together in its Lifelong Learning Programme — primarily Comenius, for schools, Erasmus, for higher education, Leonardo da Vinci, for vocational education and training, and Grundtvig, for adult education. The Commission provides little sense of past European-wide initiatives in lifelong learning and it is silent about the historical purposes that its present programs might advance. Having been set in motion, they persist — such is the frequent failing of bureaucratic purpose. In the current fashion, the Commission defines objectives for the four initiatives in narrow, concrete ways, addressed to cohorts and testable by quantified measures to be achieved in the next two to four years. Although the Commission's whole program purports to address lifelong learning, the actual scale of effort weighs heavily in favor of institutional initiatives for the formal education of the young. Comenius and Erasmus, the initiatives pertaining to schooling and higher education, aim to affect 3 million students each, while da Vinci and Grundtvig, the initiatives reaching outside of formal education, aim to affect only some 80,000 and 25,000 participants, even though the pool of potential participants in these is larger than in the other two. The website concentrates almost exclusively on what and how. For instance, the information on "Grundtvig for adult education" mentions only two purposes, rather in passing: the program "tackles Europe's aging population problem" and by improving the knowledge and skills of adults, it will keep "them mentally fit and potentially more employable." As most everything else on the site, the description of Grundtvig concentrates on specific objectives and actions.
In comparison, Permanent Education conveyed a much fuller historical vision in 1970. Its authors concentrated on why a fundamental transformation of education in Europe would be important if it could be brought about. I first saw the book shortly after its publication, and the title piqued my interest because the phrase seemed curious to me. In the 60s and 70s, many critics were noting that the value of knowledge acquired when a person was young had transient value and I wondered what "permanent education" could possibly consist in. On noting that the lead contributors were French and Belgian, however, I soon figured out that une séance permanente was the French for what we used to call a "continuous showing" at a movie theater. "Permanent education" meant continuous education.
By permanent or continuous education the contributors had in mind a comprehensive educational system, one that would include ample continuing education as it has later developed — formal educational opportunities for adults, usually related to employment in one way or another. Further, permanent or continuous education was also somewhat akin to lifelong learning, although the 1970 proposals had postulated a more active, assertive cultural role for each adult within a system of continuous education than the concept of a lifelong learner, a variant on the consumer in the marketplace, usually suggests. The concept of permanent education rested on an historical diagnosis of the pedagogical problem that people faced in realizing their democratic aspirations — the scope of knowledge that a person needed was very great and subject to continuous changes through the span of a normal life in order to sustain full political participation in the polity, continuous, meaningful employment in the economy, and creative engagement in the culture, the home, and the community. Contributors to Permanent Education saw historical conditions emerging in which each person would need through out life to participate recurrently in serious educational activity, drawing on well-developed skills of learning and inquiry to cultivate his or her potentialities. Whereas the European Commission now concentrates on fine tuning the systems of schooling and higher education, in 1970 the Council of Europe largely bracketed schooling and higher education by suggesting that the reform of these institutions (a thorough-going one) had to follow the provision of continuous education measures effective and meaningful for all adults. Once new arrangements for adults were in place, then the existing system of formal education for children and youth could be revamped to ensure that all, by the time they were adults, had had the prerequisite preparations to make full use of their opportunities for continuous education. The proponents of permanent education wanted to shift the basic conception about education from an experience concentrated in a person's childhood and youth towards one that would make education a person's central concern throughout life. Educating the young was a propaedeutic for the continuous education of all.
Henri Janne, et al. Permanent Education (Strasbourg: Council of Europe, 1970), especially contributions by Janne, Bertrand Schwartz, Hans Tietgens, and Herbert Jocher.
Provisions for permanent education would have to begin with the design of the recurrent educational opportunities, meaningful and effective for all, for adults. Here Permanent Education was much clearer about needs than it was about means. Much pedagogical invention would be necessary before educators could design well-developed continuous education programs for adults. Although indeterminate, Permanent Education called on educators to give these efforts priority as the path towards truly meaningful reform. Once the new adult programs had been worked out, new objectives for the schooling of children would follow. The authors of Permanent Education suggested that these school reforms would scale back an over-loaded curriculum to ensure that at the end of basic schooling each person had the skills requisite for taking full, self-directing advantage of the recurrent educational opportunities and responsibilities that they would have as adults. The proponents of permanent education held that these transformations of existing educational practices would make a fuller realization of democratic potentialities possible in a unifying Europe. Although the fruit of planning efforts by educational bureaucrats taking place throughout the 1960s, the fifteen concept papers in Permanent Education were tinged by the radical, break-away spirit of that decade. As examples of sound technocratic planning the current programs of the European Commission are far superior to the speculations about permanent education, which had about it, as one contributor recognized, "a certain degree of mystification, maintained unconsciously or deliberately." But this mystification arose because they were aware that powerful historical forces were driving changes in social structures that people had to try to manage without knowing exactly what they could or should accomplish. They wanted to assign priority to discovering and implementing new pedagogical resources for adults rather than devote their resources to extending the operation of existing schools, which many of them believed were trying to do too much without effect.
Technocrats could apolitically accept the ends in view of the existing institutions, trying to serve those as efficiently and effectively as possible. But to act on the emergence of new structures, one could not merely be an instrumental technocrat, one needed to be political, responsible in history, to take a stand by acting, autonomously on one's own cognizance, for values embodied in a vision of the future.
Those of us working with powerful educational technologies, which have the potential of changing the operational structures and limits of education as we know it, have the responsibility to act with political awareness, to affirm what purposes we shall serve in designing and developing new means of education. Above and beyond our expertise as bureaucrats and technicians, we have responsibilities and opportunities as humans, acting in an historical world, and we need to consider, both carefully and courageously, what those responsibilities are. The speculations in Permanent Education are a good place for those of us working in e-Learning and in i-Study to start. That's my second point for my talk in Toronto.
Subject: What's with the title?
Date: July 7, 2009
Max Weber, "The Profession and Vocation of Politics," Weber: Political Writings, Peter Lassman and Ronald Speirs, eds., (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994) pp3. 67-8.
You'are sounding more and more like Max Weber speaking on the Vocation of Politics. Like Weber, you seem to be saying that anyone who exercises power takes on a responsibility for foreseeable consequences of their actions. Medium theory, as you have suggested in your first big email, makes it evident that communications media are tools of power in the human world and the design and implementation of media for different purposes is an exercise of power. Weber eloquently argued that with any form of power, there comes an ethic of responsibility, a taking a responsibility in history for the consequences of its use. I wonder if your listeners will catch how much you are asking of them. Weber cautioned that it is all too easy for people engaged in the exercise of power to feel themselves to be a neutral "part of the conventional rhetoric used by political philistines and technicians." Perhaps you might find a way to work into your talk Weber's wonderful closing charge to his audience at the University of Munich in 1919 — it is immensely moving when a mature person (whether old or young) who feels with his whole soul the responsibility he bears for the real consequences of his actions, and who acts on the basis of an ethics of responsibility, says at some point, 'Here I stand, I can do no other.' That is something genuinely human and profoundly moving. For it must be possible for each of us to find ourselves in such a situation at some point if we are not inwardly dead. In this respect, the ethics of conviction and the ethics of responsibility are not absolute opposites. They are complementary to one another, and only in combination do they produce the true human being who is capable of having a 'vocation for politics'. Those of us in the academic world in general, and the educational technologists among us in particular, seem to have become too worried about promotion and tenure, too concerned for clients and the sources of funding for the next project, to exercise our capacity to take such stands, to assume responsibility in history for the eventual consequences of what we do.
That's my two bits for now. But isn't the title of your talk "Disclosing the Commons: On Breaking the Structural Limits of Education"? You haven't said much about the commons yet, or the structural limits of education. Is the title simply a tease?
Subject: Two structural limits -- printing as a shaper of schools and universities
Date: July 10, 2009
Well, as I see it, I've laid the foundation for talking about the structural limits of education. First, to see the structural limits of education clearly we need to draw on the basic insights of the Toronto school. They provide a method for exploring the relations between material systems of communication and the cultural possibilities that people can develop with the affordances and limitations of those systems. Second, it is the historical sense that makes the structural limits significant. It was your guys, the Frankfurt School, who showed how irrational instrumental reason could become by a failure to adapt values and purposes to changing historical contexts. If educators get stuck endlessly optimizing mature structures, the marginal utility of additional effort declines. At some point, one at which we have arrived, I believe, educators need to stop seeking to push the operation of the present system closer to its functional limits, and find ways to break through those limits by transforming the given structure into something new. All functional systems have morphological limits. The morphological limits of a functional system arise from the form, structure, and configuration of its components. The material characteristics of a medium significantly affect how people can and will use it. These set limits on functional potentiality without determining the particulars of any performance — humans can run a mile in under four minutes, with the right physique, conditioning, will, and effort, but most of us will never approach that measure and those who break it will do so by narrow margins. The human anatomy affords us a great variety of possible movements, but at the same time the enabling morphology bounds each with a real, but hidden, outer limit. Record breakers can push performance ever closer to the limit, but each form has associated with it a spectrum of possibilities within which actualities will fall. To reach beyond the possibilities associated with a given form, a new form must displace the old. For a human to travel a mile in significantly less than four minutes, he or she must use other means of locomotion than the human gait. What limits on possible educational results arise from the morphology of current arrangements? What alternative arrangement will significantly improve the possibilities?
Unfortunately, we have difficulty seeing in sharp relief how particular media structure the performance of important functions, such as education, because the media and the functions jumble together into one set of givens. Relative to it, there is no vantage point from which we can observe its internal interactions. This difficulty diminishes when new media begin to substitute for the old. In the midst of such changes, observers can intuit new arrangements for performing familiar functions, which helps to make the old, obscure relationships between established media and their use more visible. Components that had appeared to be necessary parts of the morphological function, reappear as accidents of the particular mode of action chosen for performing the function. Arrangements that had appeared at a particular historical stage to have been a set of necessary givens, metamorphose into the contingent consequences of using tools that are now being set aside and replaced with new ones. The runner finds himself decisively outpaced by the rider.
Morphological substitution with respect to complex social functions is a little more complicated than the example of the runner and rider, however. Here the important substitutions usually do not involve one whole system for another, but the introduction of something new, sometimes for parts of the old and sometimes in addition to the parts of the old, enabling a reconfiguration of activities, and a recalibration of the limits on possibilities.
We can see a simple example of such change in the scale of schools in middle third of the twentieth century. Before then children got to school primarily on foot and members of my generation proverbially heard from our parents and grandparents tales of pedestrian heroism — how many miles they would daily walk to school! Despite all the walking, getting children to school on foot ensured the size of schools would be small unless the local population density was extremely high. And for want of size and the resources that size brings in tow, the curriculum was well-focused and basic, while the instruction was personal, for there everyone knew your name. Then came the school bus, bright yellow in the United States, filled with children from a much larger area, and with it, a marked increase in school size and a more complicated curriculum, and other pluses, along with many minuses incurred by concentrating too many children in a single place.
Here we come to key challenges those of us working in e-Learning and i-Study face with respect to the structural limits on education. The changes in school size resulting from changes in the technologies of transportation were evident and rather inescapable. The situation is different, I think, with possibilities arising from changes in communication technologies. What features of existing educational arrangements derive from the affordances and limitations of print-based media of communication? Educational innovators like us pay far too little attention to this question, for we are too busy implementing the new technologies to pay much attention to how old technologies have functioned educationally and shaped the institutional landscape within which we work.
It is my hypothesis that the material characteristics of books and other printed materials were the effective determinants of very basic features of existing educational arrangements. The operational characteristics of electronic media, their affordances and limitations, are very different from those of print communications. By not paying adequate attention to the way print media have determined existing educational arrangements, we take derivative arrangements to be timeless, necessary components of the educational function itself. As a result, we busy ourselves making electronic media perform in ways that arose as arrangements enabling educators to make effective use of print media in education. Perhaps these modes of use are optimal as well for electronic communications. Perhaps they are not. If we confuse the contingent with the necessary, we may be reproducing in the electronic environment, not only the affordances of print media, but the structure of its limitations as well. And we will recognize these limitations as very serious shortcomings once we stop seeing them as ineluctable necessities.
In Toronto, a segment of my talk will show how the medium of print has shaped the spectrum of educational possibilities in elementary and secondary schools and in colleges and universities. These institutional forms serve the two sectors of education, basic education for all and specialized preparation for prospective professionals, that have been historically developed with some success so far. From the perspective of robust democratic ideals, these provisions have been highly imperfect, reproducing socioeconomic divisions over generations that are fundamentally undemocratic. Many educators may hold these divisions to be necessary by nature. I think they are historical accidents contingent on the reliance of print-based communications in our educational arrangements. I want to point out significant ways in which those of us working with electronic technologies in schools and in universities risk succumbing to historical inertia, reproducing these accidental features of existing arrangements, necessary in an era of print and optional, and possibly suboptimal, in an era of electronic communication. Important shifts from necessity to contingency in schooling and in higher education will become apparent if we understand how institutional arrangements and practices once stood in tight, necessary relationship to print-based educational communication.
In education, communications media have structures and limited the pedagogical potentialities of various institutional arrangements for the conduct of education. As long as the originating technologies continued as the predominant means of communication, the limits they imposed would appear to be stable necessities. With the advent of alternative modes of communication, new possibilities arise, but the old necessities can remain in force, no longer as necessities, but as historical contingencies. As contingencies, they will likely persist through cultural lag, until people proactively work to change them. We are now surrounded by arrangements, which arose as necessities owing to the material characteristics of print-based communications. Now they may have become mere contingencies, given the characteristics of new information and communications technologies. Former operational necessities may lose their quality of necessity and practices that formerly would not work may become both feasible and desirable.
First, I'll consider schooling. Its structure has become remarkably similar the world around because the textbook has everywhere become the authoritative basis for all curricula. Prior to print the basic pedagogical problem of learning to read and write was much more difficult than it became after printing made textbooks dependably available. Over the past 500 years, however, a tight relationship between the material characteristics of books and the organization and structure of schools has developed. Let us note a few key ways the material realities of print communications have conditioned the organization and operation of schools. For one, if people were going to use books to make the material to be studied in schools available to students, the material would of necessity have to be broken up into discreet components. Books are physical objects, workable only within a range of sizes and weights. The material characteristics of books limit how much intellectual content authors and publishers can include in a manageable way. This limitation makes a structure of subjects and one of grades a necessity in a school that codifies its curriculum in books. To test this necessity, try to imagine kids going to and from home and school with a textbook suitable for use in all subjects for all grades. Backpacks have already sprouted wheels and children would need a big motorized wheelbarrow or perhaps kids could go to school on souped-up medieval reading wheels. This necessity of organizing school studies by subject and grades began to become a contingency around 1990 and now a kid with an iPhone or a Netbook has immediate access to all the intellectual content he or she will need throughout the reach of formal education.
Of course, there may be other necessities that make the organization of schools without the division of grades and subjects impossible, but the shift from print communication to digital communication removes a big one. And the material characteristics of books affect a lot more than these familiar organizational features of schools. One problem with evidence-based education has to do with whether the phenomena that evidence demonstrates are stable. Medical evidence pertains to the human physiology in sickness and in health. While not absolutely stable, it is largely so. How stable is the cultural physiology, so to speak?
Medium theory, inquiry into how the medium affects the message, applied to communications in education points up significant potential instabilities — what works in one communications environment — say a set of lessons with a fixed scope and sequence — may not work so well, or with such necessity, in its successors. A textbook of usable size can present a significant but limited set of topics on one subject or another. Sources suitable for presenting the full complexity of each topic would be too expensive and too awkward to use in schooling for all. Because doing justice to complexity and nuance is infeasible, the limited presentation in the textbook becomes normative for both the instructor and the pupils. The idea takes hold that through schooling the teacher should teach and the pupil should learn the sequence of lessons embodied in the textbook.
In large education efforts, recitation by pupils working on set lessons seems to have been a norm of realistic practice where all work with fixed epitomes of knowledge. Nevertheless, widely and recurrently, educators have perceived that self-paced learning, within a full, multifaceted presentation of a field, might be a better pedagogical practice because individual students seem to learn best when they pursue their own answers to questions that really intrigue them. This perception stands behind the perennial attraction of progressive pedagogy, but it hasn't yet proved fully workable in truly extensive practice, especially with older students studying more difficult matters. It seems to work only with the very young or quite advanced students. In the former case, young children tend to pose questions to which a resourceful adult can respond meaningfully one the basis of her general knowledge. In the latter case, the number of advanced students has been winnowed down to the point where it has become economically feasible to encourage them to learn by inquiry in well-stocked, well-organized research collections. In between — from the third or fourth grade through the early years of college — the authoritative textbook sets the agenda of learning. There the material conditions of print-based knowledge make the textbook authoritative. Only the most unusual teachers will know enough in their stock of learning to respond in productive ways to the various inquiries generated by a classroom of curious kids. Only very special, well-endowed schools will have the books and other intellectual resources at hand, somehow made sufficiently usable under everyday conditions, to enable kids to advance their open-ended inquiries along paths that are intellectually sound and stimulating. Except under exceptional circumstances, neither good teachers nor good schools can command sufficient print-based knowledge to support the authentic inquiries generated by a roomful of kids engaged in self-paced, self-directed learning.
Owing to physical limitations arising from the material characteristics of books, a pedagogy that has all the students on the same page and the same time may prove, on average, objectively more effective than letting each student follow his or her special interests. And once educators adopted the practice of having students in large groups learning the same thing at the same time, they adopted a notion of evaluation based on the assumption that the evaluators knew, before testing anything, precisely what a good student should know. As a result, evaluation tests short-term outcomes, indicating whether kids have learned what their teachers sought to teach. Such evaluation says nothing about the quality of mind any given student may have formed. And further it gives the particular student little dynamic feedback useful to the student in pursuit of his or her self-expectations.
Printing constrained the pedagogical situation in extensive ways. The educational overhead consumed in keeping numerous groupings of 25 kids, plus or minus a few, all more or less in sync, learning the predictable things at the scheduled times, may have been a necessary overhead for mass schooling in which textbooks fixed the scope and sequence of instruction. In an electronic information environment, the material constraints of print no longer pertain, and pedagogical options that formerly worked poorly may become the optimal possibilities under the new constraints. Hence, a thorough-going, inquiry-based pedagogy may prove superior in a context of electronic communications. But the powers that be are acting as if the existing system stands as a timeless arrangement, and too many educational technologists passively design ways to use new media to perform the functions of the old media, which the new will replace.
So much for schooling; I'll turn to higher education. The material characteristics of books and related media for storing, retrieving, and disseminating knowledge have shaped important features of higher education. I will only note certain key relationships, here to you or there in Toronto, for explaining it fully would be too involved. Books have been essential resources in formulating, preserving, and disseminating knowledge and the material characteristics of books require that very large libraries be amassed, at significant cost, to support the advancement of learning. As a result, higher education had necessarily to be organized on a campus basis where concentrations of professors and students could congregate about the library, according some discernible scale set by the number of books and other library holdings needed to support the research function. If the campus attracted too few professors and students, the library would cease, for want of resources, to be suitable for research, and if there were too many on campus, the library would degrade from overuse.
Each printed item has a material heft, several ounces to several pounds of paper and cardboard, durable by the day but delicate by the decade, Each has its place so that it can be found, borrowed, read, and replaced. All these discrete objects, each with its tangible bulk, its proclivity to wear out or to get misplaced, aggregate into extraordinarily useful collections housed in large buildings, maintained by a significant staff. Of necessity, the community of users — professors and students — must group in reasonable proximity to the research collection, and the space of this proximity, we have come to call the campus. Further, the resulting system of necessity developed to be elitist and exclusive. Ironically, most on campus would like the institution to be democratic, open, and inclusive, but it has inescapably been elitist, closed, and exclusive.
What would happen if we invited all the public into the stacks of research libraries? Perhaps nothing, at first, because most people are accustomed to not going there. But let us say that studies started showing that an exploratory pedagogy in high schools using "stack-study" seemed to have good results. Soon the narrow aisles would fill with boisterous kids and the number of wrongly shelved books would rise, and the library staff, goaded by research scholars and advanced students, would start working up policies closing the stacks. Of course, these exclusions have long been in force and the campus has universally developed as a bounded place, open to a few, closed to the many, grouped around its library with a certain rough scale of possibilities for scope and quality of its programs associating in necessary ways with the physical characteristics of its printed tools of production.
Academic specialization also derives significantly from the physical characteristics of books organized in research libraries, for the collections of each field occupy a lot of space. Renaissance men had limited collections to work with and could keep everything in them more or less at hand. In recent times, leaping from field to field in a good research library requires running all over the place, wasting precious time going from here to there and back again. In print libraries, a graduate student gets good at retrieving and manipulating the resources of her field, but she finds it daunting to branch out, in more than a superficial way, into the specialized collections of other fields. As the collection grows, that easy sense of what's where that a good scholar builds up for what she really knows well becomes confined to a smaller and smaller portion of the total collection. Other necessary relationships also follow, important ones. For instance, the size of the library, and the number of scholars and students grouped around it, determines a lot about the pedagogical interactions between professors and students. A small campus can support some courses that everyone takes, but the range of different courses they can take will be restricted. On large campuses, no matter how charismatic some of its professors may be, only a small portion of students will take the most popular offerings. But unlike their peers on small campuses, each will have many specialized offerings to choose among. To facilitate the transfer of students from one campus to another and to promote the comparability of educational experiences between different students on a campus, strong forces have been at work standardizing the form and scope of all the different courses: hence the Carnegie Units and the rule of Credit Hours.
Scale affects the content professors offer, as well. I suspect nearly every experienced faculty member has had ideas for something he would like to try educationally, but never would, because he knows that the chance of finding a sufficient set of participants, drawing from the on-campus population, is nil. I call these, utopic studies, for they can be offered nowhere. In reality, campuses support a relatively limited repertoire of courses in each subject and field, ranging from the introductory to the advanced, dependably drawing at a minimum between 5 or 10 students and at a maximum several hundred. This repertoire may vary in scope from a large campus to a small one, but all offer essentially similar courses, according to scales of engagement and expectation shared from one campus to another. Variations occur in the quality of instruction and in the depth of materials covered, but from campus to campus the form of the courses offered are remarkably the same.
In Toronto I want to observe that institutions of higher education share an instructional repertoire, initiating the young into knowledge-based employ, and they meet the demand for this repertoire reasonably effectively, providing those coming of age with suitable preparation in approximately the measure that society can absorb. If the existing system of higher education is successfully maintaining this balance between supply and demand, what should be the agenda of innovation through e-learning? In response, I want to advance a proposition that educational technologists may resist: namely, we are spending far too much energy trying to recapitulate with electronic media the basic repertoire of campus courses in an effort to gain market share through distance learning. Through this strategy, a few institutions may wax a little and a few want a little, but it will not do much to realize new potentialities in education.
Across the many campuses of higher education, faculty members deliver numerous instances of courses in the basic repertoire through face-to-face instruction. Here and there the content will be mediocre and the instruction atrocious, but on most campuses, excepting the absurdly prestigious, market forces maintain and perhaps improve instructional quality. Campuses impart real social and emotional benefits by concentrating young adults together in the pursuit of self-formation that will be difficult to match through agencies of distance learning. To date, there is little evidence that the cost-benefit results of distance learning are sufficiently effective to displace existing agencies of face-to-face higher education. The case for delivering the basic repertoire through distance learning turns on the conviction that one institution has a version of it is so superior to other versions that it can deliver its courses competitively at a distance compared to those other, lesser institutions can deliver face-to-face in their local. Given the availability of both a face-to-face course and distant learning version of it, which will people normally prefer? What can the at-a-distance course offer that the face-to-face cannot? These considerations suggest that it may be difficult to beat the campus at its own game by trying to deliver the basic repertoire of higher education at a distance.
Wise leaders in higher education will concentrate on two strategies for e-learning. One is fairly obvious and increasingly the main locus of effective innovation: use electronic resources to improve the scope and quality of on-campus education. The second is far from obvious, but very interesting Instead of delivering the basic repertoire of campus-based instruction at a distance, it is important to ask what it is, by the nature of the campus, that might be done but can't be done in higher education. Educational technologists should concentrate more on what campus-based educators are not doing, on what they cannot do so well. A campus is a social form, a community of scholars and students. When it expands to much more than 50,000, it breaks into multiple campuses, and when it shrinks to much less than 1,000, it shrivels and disappears, unable to maintain a sufficient piece of the repertoire at adequate quality to attract participants. If there is a scale to campus-based, face-to-face higher education, that suggests realms to think about outside that scale — what's too big and too small to achieve through a campus-based program.
What's too big involves those rare purveyors of something in the standard repertoire who are truly extraordinary, extra-ordinary, worthy of an audience that cuts across many different campuses. The Teaching Company, for instance, does pretty well at packaging and disseminating what is too big, those lecture series, given by the rare masters of the art, that can suitably reach very large, widely dispersed audiences, numbering in the thousands. High-brow television does part of the job as well with various documentary series, both entertaining and edifying, that draw a broadcast audience and live on in DVD. These efforts, aiming for audiences too large to concentrate on a single campus, illuminate, but stand outside the current credentialing mission of academic institutions Let us leave consideration of them aside, confident that entrepreneurial spirits, in tune with our neo-liberal age, will see that the opportunities for them will be met. What stands at the other end of the opportunity spectrum is more interesting and challenging.
To find the other, what's too small, we really need to resist a lot of conventional expectations. I'll put forward a proposition that seems counter-intuitive on the surface and then try to explain how it makes perfect common sense. To develop e-Learning and i-Study to their full potentials, and to make possible the fundamental transformations envisioned forty years ago by the proponents of Permanent Education, educational technologists need to concentrate on implementing what does not and will not work on campus. I'll go so far as proposing they develop these impossibilities by harnessing the creativity of scholars who seem to be over the hill and out to pasture. The vision put forward in Permanent Education may have become far more feasible in the twenty-first century by capturing talent and energy now lost to the system of higher education and helping it develop advanced, intensive study-groups for committed novices, a possible pedagogical form that rarely works on any particular campus. Why is this unlikely proposition commonsensical? Networked digital communications add much value by radically lowering transaction costs, bringing the "long tail" of commerce to the market — those innumerable items tucked away in warehouses or on back lists that no store can afford to stock. Thus Amazon or eBay, and a few others, thrive by handling lots and lots of small-sellers as efficiently as the blockbuster and best-seller. But the morphology of campus pedagogy has been such that there is nothing in the stock of common courses to constitute a long tail for higher education. Campus-based institutions only offer courses that enroll, on average, between ten and several hundred from a pool of several thousand on-campus participants. And they offer those course in innumerable variants from one campus to another. Campuses have been to higher education, what the local books stores have been to the book trade.
Where would Amazon be if it had only offered those books that sold reasonably well in most local bookstores? To have an Amazonian U, with a scope of educational offerings varied and rich enough to make it genuinely attractive relative to the local campuses, as Amazon.com is relative to the local bookstore, higher education must generate a vastly expanded repertoire of interesting pedagogical possibilities. Amazonian U will thrive by offering people educational opportunities that they won't be able to find on any accessible campus. The bulk of those will consist of educational experiences that will not work on campuses because the pool of potential participants on each is too small.
Note that Amazonian U confronts the very problems that the contributors to Permanent Education faced. They wanted to redesign the educational system taking the continuous educational interests of all adults in the population as their starting point and then restructuring educational opportunities for children and youth to equip the adult population with the skills they would need to make full use of their continuous educational opportunities. They recognized two big problems stood in their way. First, it would take a massive infusion of resources to create the continuous educational opportunities for adults and to reform schooling for children and youth. Second, they had only vague ideas about what sorts of educational experiences might really suit adults on a continuing basis throughout their lives. Now I don't have blueprints for solving these two problems, but I can speak about the sorts of developments from which we might expect solutions to emerge.
Resources for generating historic innovations are always tightly limited. Historical life never functions with large surpluses, ready at hand, to support prospective possibilities. Hence, innovators can not expect to fuel systemic transformations through currently unallocated resources, public or private. Instead, we must accept the following as a fundamental stipulation: In order to mobilize the wherewithal to support significant educational change, it will be necessary to find ways to harness creative energies that currently are not accounted for in public and private activities. One source of creative energy not within the current structure of accounts is that of the young. Child labor laws rightly exclude the young from the primary economy. But current educational arrangements further treat students, those receptive learners, as passive subjects to be worked on by the educative agents of society. A more reasonable division of labor would treat children and youth as active agents in their own educations. Students can be creative sources of much of the work to be performed throughout their own education by making more sophisticated use of the perception behind the nineteenth-century monitorial system: the best way to master something is to teach it. Kids are resourceful, creative, intelligent, and shrewd. Lets break away from the idea that they all need to be doing the same thing at the same time, channeled by detailed, explicit guidelines. Let them inquire, explore, and communicate their interests to each other. Outside of school — from skateboarding through texting and twittering — peer interaction among adolescents transmits a vast range of ideas, styles, and valuations, but inside school — witness the deadening over specification of assignments — adolescent autonomy is left locked in a narrow band of sensibility by withholding from it much real responsibility for the success or failure of long-term educational experience.
Children and youth will not bring the long tail of advanced options for the continuous education of adults into operation across global electronic networks, however. This purpose needs a different source of untapped creative energy, a grown-up source. Unfortunately, grown-up sources of historical energy seem to be exactly the ones fully occupied with the existing business of life and therefore not available for something new. But on reflection, we can see a new source fortuitously emerging. In a timely manner, the older members of the population, groups rapidly growing in every developed society and many of the developing ones as well, are living longer, healthier, potentially highly creative lives. Large numbers of hale and hearty academics are going into retirement, having earned decent pensions and accumulated retirement resources, taking immense productive capacities out of the system, making room for a new generation of academics to start their ascent up the ladders of promotion and tenure. Why don't we channel these energies of elder persons to the solution of new problems? Here then is the first sort of development from which change might come — to solve the resource problem, we need to look, not for unallocated monies, but for human energies that current arrangements are passing over untapped.
To sum up the resource problem, it is not so daunting. Rather than requiring the reallocation of existing expenditures, it requires uncovering untapped human energies. At any time, most people find themselves fully occupied with the existing cares of life. True, there is a margin of unemployment, but the working economy keeps adults in their working years busy earning their living at something close to what we call full employment. Hence, those comprising the paid workforce largely lack the time or incentive to innovate. Let us look elsewhere for the talent needed to effect historic change. Working adults can continue doing what they now do well and for which they earn their remuneration. With modest incentives and good leadership, the young and the old can add a great deal of creative energy to the overall pedagogical system, empowering its thorough-going reconstruction. Hence, the problem is not one of resources but a question of program. What do educators need to create to develop the pedagogical program of Amazonian U and that vague, tantalizing idea of permanent education? Here is where we need to look at what cannot be done on the many campuses of the world.
Face it, most of the time for adults, campus-based educational experiences are not very attractive. Sometimes job-market angst will drive them back to school, but most go about life without an overwhelming urge to engage in continuing education opportunities that ape their prior undergraduate and professional preparations. To some degree, alas, this lack of interest is undoubtedly a brute fact of life. There is more to life than continuous education. But there is a big difference between what continuous education might be, and what continuing education now is. Continuing education is often remedial — what a person missed first time around — or a refresher for the professional who got trained a while ago and needs to catch up with the subsequent developments. Continuous education, should it come to be, would occupy a greater domain of meaning in ordinary people's lives. We, the well educated, look down on the nonsense that fills the super-market press, but this nonsense reveals a curiosity about the character and limits of human experience, a not unworthy curiosity, and it elicits nonsense because no one who knows better deigns to engage this curiosity at its starting point. The well-educated assume that only little children can entertain naive, important questions. Adults must do so from a substantial prior base of learning. These expectations sell many fold short and result from the ingrained elitism of our systems of education.
To find what might comprise continuous, or permanent education, we need to consider where it might fit into our lives, the lives of all of us, for our personal lives have an allocation problem not unlike that of the whole society. Continuing education, exemplified in developments like Phoenix University, has so far oriented towards work life, like much of the formal education for the younger generation, and that is not really the vital dimension most important in developing twenty-first century cultural democracies. The drive to more and more material production and consumption needs to abate, both as a social imperative and as a personal goal. The demand for "More!" must become a declaration of "Enough!" This shift in fundamental goals is implicit in our saying that twenty-first century democracy needs to be a cultural democracy in the fullest sense of the word.
For the most part, the role of continuous education in our lives will have less to do with work and more to do with the rest of human existence. Conventional thinking values education for its collective and personal contribution to economic prosperity, but life abounds with other needs and possibilities to which educative effort makes essential contributions. Our lives include much leisure, and prospects for more as productivity continues to improve. Unfortunately, unemployment forces some leisure for too many people. But people have earned far more leisure through shortening work-weeks, which now average under 40 hours out of 126 (not counting 8 hours daily for our recommended sleep). All those non-work hours are not empty, but filled with the myriad of activities that constitute most of our waking lives. If we, as educators, are to develop the possibilities of a continuous, permanent education on a historically meaningful scale, we need to go beyond instructing our compelled and captive charges. In developing Amazonian U, educators need to address autonomous persons engaged in the fullness of life by offering compelling opportunities for universal, voluntary study in their leisure hours, which currently are far from empty.
Imaginative experiment develops new opportunities. Campus practice is not the pedagogical model for the world of permanent education. In due course, I suspect some future sense of "going to city" will become important as a significant pedagogical place, more populous and inclusive than the campus. Cities have long been spontaneous centers for cultural creativity and can become far more so with a little conscious effort. But I'm sure we will have ample opportunity to consider the city as educator over the coming years if my sense of where Emilia is headed proves correct. For now, let's think about how educators can make Amazonian U begin to thrive.
To do so, educators need to think about the leisure time of the general public and to stop trying to popularize knowledge by giving the public the least common denominator of every field. As the general public, we, the people, are immense and diverse. That's the exciting part of it, there are so many creative possibilities in life. The moguls of mass markets do very well at catering to the least common denominators to which we are responsive. Instead, educators can concentrate on discovering how to open the knowledge enterprise at its most advanced levels to full public engagement. Culture watered down lacks formative power, both for those who consume it, and for those who create it. A worthy cultural democracy will not simply equip all its members with an identical veneer; it will invite each to engage as an autonomous peer in the real advancement of culture and learning. What is the human potential? Why has culture, the work of intellect, been so elitist in its operations? Is rocket science really so hard that only a very, very few are so speacial that they can do it and the rest of humanity cannot? Are the best and the brightest really so different from the ordinary run of folks? I submit that human intelligence in operation, persons thinking, is pretty sharp across the board. At the very least, I want to suggest, we need to test the proposition that the historical elitism evident up to now in cultural creativity has arisen largely from material constraints on access to the tools of cultural creation. These constraints are radically loosening. We need to test out what is possible under the loosened constraints. In pursuit of Amazonian U and the vision of permanent education, we need to try seriously to actualize the egalitarian possibility — starting with a sound basic education and unfettered access to the tools of cultural work, how long will it take, through a sustained, concentrated course of study, for any person to become a full participant in the creative work of any cultural concern that truly engages his or her interest.
I suspect that were we to witness daily life 100 years from now, we would be astounded by the range of weighty matters, which are now the domain of very specialized professionals, will then be among the things that ordinary people do for themselves. We are only at the very earliest stages of putting sophisticated understanding and skill in the reach of everyone. Signs of the change are all around us, however — programs to prepare your taxes, to anticipate your retirement needs, to plan and cost out a home renovation, to buy and sell securities, to make arrangements for a complex trip, to inform yourself about legal and medical decisions you may face. These examples are at best the Model T's of life skills informatics, probably only the Stanley Steamers of it, but they will continue to extend and develop, decade by decade. The walls of elite specialization are beginning to shake, and before long, historically speaking, they will come tumbling down. Listen to the wail of woe rising from traditional journalists. Digital access to research libraries and laboratories is making it feasible for anyone to work with the intellectual resources they contain without degrading the usefulness of those tools for anyone else. And the early retirement of many knowledgeable specialists creates a ready pool of potential guides for advanced study for anyone who wishes to engage in it. The material requirements for a significant educational and cultural transformation are at hand.
On that note of prophetic optimism, I'll close for now.
Subject: Will you disclose the commons?
Date: July 11, 2009
Prophetic optimism, yes — there is a lot to think about here, with regard to Em and with regard to what's going on at Almamater. In Germany, the hierarchical structure of the university clashes visibly with the social democratic outlook of most students and professors. If I grasp it correctly, you are suggesting that existing institutions of higher education will transcend their elitist character only very slowly. As continuous education for adults fills out the spectrum of educational possibilities, the constraints structuring colleges and universities will loosen up. I wonder whether privileging research over teaching in higher education, which has been going on for quite some time, already reflects this loosening of constraints. I can imagine universities becoming places dedicated exclusively to advancing knowledge — institutes for scholars without students. The world of study would be extra-institutional with competency exams, like the bar exam, regulating entrance into formal professional practice in those remaining areas where it was needed.
You need, Rob to be careful to explain what you mean by historical changes. They will think ahead five years and find what you suggest to be wholly unrealistic. To them, the present is something pretty short-lived, something taking place in journalistic or political time. I've heard you talk about the extended present often enough to know that you are thinking about what is happeni When you speak about developing a vision of cultural democracy for the 21st century, you need to make it clear that this is a continuous process of development that will unfold through the entire duration of the 21st century, which may, like the 19th, be a long century by historical measure. History is like a kid on a scooter, with each year, or few years, like a single thrust of the leg, pushing along an extended ride.
Come September, the committee I'm heading on undergraduate education will be struggling with these questions on far too short a timescale. No one will act on a long-term understanding of problems and possibilities and short-term views almost always simply respond to the situation at hand with no foresight. It is historical buck-passing. I hope I can persuade my colleagues to subject our current practices to a thorough pedagogical critique. I've just read a short book that everyone on the committee should read — Lost in the Meritocracy: The Undereducation of an Overachiever by the novelist, Walter Kirn. It is a funny, acerbic critique of how the pursuit of comparative merit subverts meaningful education. Rousseau is roused, cheering him on.
With all you have said in your last three emails, I'm reluctant to ask, but I guess I must. You haven't said anything about what you might mean by "disclosing the commons." Are you going to leave that out?
Subject: From enclosure to disclosure
Date: July 14, 2009
You've asked for it. I'm not going to leave the commons out. . . . In the egalitarian test that we face, the cultural commons is essential to the idea of permanent education. We live in a cultural environment riven by all sorts of hierarchies. A major test in the 21st century, and a great opportunity, requires developing a meaningful realization of cultural democracy. For this purpose we need to expand and invigorate the cultural commons. The idea of permanent education requires a vibrant commons, a complex world of striving shared by all.
Without treating our cultural resources as a commons, each person will not have unfettered access to tools of cultural creation in the areas of interest to him or her. Enclosing cultural resources as a form of private property means that some have access to them and others do not, imposing an elitist, not democratic, configuration of the culture. Over the past 500 years, policies of enclosure have been very productive in both culture and commerce, even though the results were inherently elitist. The great challenge in our time is to go beyond that condition.
I want to conclude my talk by suggesting that the advent of digital technologies is a fundamental historical disruption, as a result of which policies of disclosure need to supplant those of enclosure, certainly within the domain of culture, and quite probably that of commerce as well. We have before us the prospect of a truly democratic culture, one that has outgrown its traditional elitism. It is a prospect worth our pursuit. My flip way of putting all this — it's time to make Marx do a somersault. The material forces of production have become immaterial, driven by knowledge production and by electronic communications. These operations — their affordances and biases — are very different, potentially less alienating and exploitative, than the material techniques of industrial production. But we are caught in a historical vise. The legal and intellectual procedures developed to manage the material dynamics of industrial production and consumption threaten to impose their principles of operation, including their operational limitations, on the emerging alternatives to material production.
Marx had too little sense of historical irony. He was probably right that the material forces of production determine the cultural superstructure — systems of law, organizational procedures, patterns of education, tastes, and conventions. While secondary as historical determinants, the texture and quality of the lives we experience largely depend on these superstructural arrangements. And once a highly developed superstructure has been set in place as the working context for daily living, it may very well be able to block the emergence of alternative potentialities. That can happen as the legal and organizational structures generated out of traditional capitalism cycle back and shape the emerging forces in an open, knowledge economy. If that happens, the superstructure of industrialism will persist, essentially unchanged, having implanted its norms and categories on the emerging system.
Our world is filled with amazing continuities from one era to the next, continuities that defy the pure material logic of the productive systems at work — just look at how principles of land inheritance were adapted to the hereditary transmission of industrial capital. In principle, capitalism rewards the risk takers astute in the here and now, but the surviving system for the inheritance of landed wealth created through it a defacto hereditary aristocracy of wealth and power in economies supposedly open to intelligence and initiative.
I'm not going to go into all of this in my talk, but it is in the back of my mind. I think we are in the early stages of a historical shift, one in which the social, cultural character of the means of production is changing, not just a tweak here or there at the margins, but a deep change, what Hegel called an Aufhebung, literally in English (auf = up and hebung = heaving) an upheaval. It is not at all clear, however, whether we, the people of the world, will be able to realize the historical opportunities embedded in that change, for there is a real possibility, perhaps a probability, that the organizational strategies of prior systems of production have sufficient historical inertia to impose themselves on the new. Those old strategies were driven by a principle of enclosure, converting the natural commons into property, privatizing it, making commodities from it. In an historical sense, enclosure was at first a progressive strategy, for there were real, material reasons why enclosed properties could be made to work better, more productively, than they would if left as a commons for any and all to use as they saw fit. Holding resources in common, for use by any and all, is a wonderful principle as long as the use of them does not become excessive, degrading their potential productive value to all. But there are, of course, powerful tendencies to overuse, and the seeming ubiquity and inevitability of this overuse has been succinctly described as "the tragedy of the commons."
A common solution, a way to avoid the tragedy of overuse, has been enclosure, privatizing the resources once held in common, a powerful process unfolding over the past 500 years. It has allowed for the productive control of who can use privatized resources for what purposes. In a direct sense, some persons greatly benefit from enclosure, namely those who receive exclusive control of enclosed resources. Other persons, those excluded from use privileges they formerly enjoyed, significantly lose from acts of enclosure. The distribution of who become the gainers and who the losers was basically arbitrary, turning on the accidents of who had the power, intellectual and physical, to construe custom and law in their favor and who did not. Legitimizing, after the fact, these arbitrary gains and losses has been difficult. Contention between the winners and losers form enclosure has been the over-riding problem in modern political history. As a result, distributive justice has become the central problem of political economy in the modern era.
Enclosure drives material growth at the cost of numerous injustices. The resulting political struggles work to moderate those injustices and to rationalize the ones that persist, but they also perpetuate new injustices and reawaken old ones. And the process of enclosure, and the question of its justice, continues to churn on on because essential common resources, hitherto bountiful for all, continue to turn tragic — air through pollution, the oceans through overfishing, water through over-consumption, perhaps the climate itself through excessive flatulence, industrial and bovine.
It is interesting that one can speak of enclosure and privatization as a common solution, for that implies that it too may be susceptible to a tragedy of the commons. Historically, alternatives to enclosure exist as means to prevent the tragedy of the commons. We might sum them all up as the practice of getting intelligent acceptable-use policies into effect for the various resources in question. One might almost say that enclosure, privatization, by itself does nothing, except insofar as it has been a strategy for putting productive acceptable-use policies into effect with respect to a great variety of productive resources. People have all sorts of other means to promote use and to regulate common resources, and many acceptable-use policies, once put in force, become self-sustaining — for instance, the basic rules of the road. Politics and education primarily address the human need to develop and manage the whole ensemble of these different acceptable-use policies through laws, regulations, conventions, custom, communications, market exchange, and on. How tragic is the commons? That question really interests me now. Some resources get used up through the use of them and we call those "non-renewable resources." They are highly susceptible to enclosure and tend to become commodities that get bought and sold. Ultimately, however, enclosing them as commodities does not prevent the tragedy of their over-use and in times when their supply is limited and the need for them widespread, a regulated commons in the form of rationing gets imposed upon the market in the name of the common good. Some resources, like agricultural land, are renewable with reasonable management, at one or another level of productivity, depending on the managerial regime in effect for them, which may have resulted from enclosure or coopeeative agreements. Other resources — knowledge, art, and culture — seem in part to work differently. Instead of being tragic, becoming less productive with increasing use, they seem at least in part to expand and improve with increasing use. To the degree they do so, their fate is a happy one — comedic, not tragic.
With these resources, the ones that in part get better with increasing use, we might draw on McLuhan's distinction between the medium and the message in a somewhat different way than he did. For McLuhan the medium was the message because the characteristics of each medium determined what messages people could communicate with it to whom, where, when, how, and why. While in this sense the medium is the message, we must at the same time recognize that the message is not the medium. Messages consist in lived experiences, some person's desires, emotions, thoughts, and actions. Media reside in objects and energies, which people employ for all sorts of passing purposes. Media are things, out there, in the world; messages are experiences, in here, in my life.
Distinguishing between messages and media is important for understanding the cultural commons. The messages of knowledge, art, and culture get enhanced with their increasing use and exchange, even though the medium for expressing these messages may not. As a commons, the medium may be tragic while its message is not. An excessively read book becomes dog-eared, and extensive degradation of the medium can severely impair the availability of its message. We know from later references to certain texts that this degradation of the message can become absolute when all the media, the manuscripts containing them, have been destroyed or lost.
Michel de Montaigne. The Complete Essays, M. A. Screech, trans. (New York: Penguin Books, 1991) pp. 170-1.
In my last email, I noted how the material characteristics of books used to support research required large, costly libraries that were easily subject to degradation through overuse. Hence the research library is, like many other things, an example of enclosure, open to some and closed to others. And the book itself — whether an ancient scroll, a Christian codex, or a modern printed tome — is a means of enclosure, putting the text in a finite place, between two covers holding it upright on a shelf, making of it a commodity of exchange. But the thought itself, that is something people have used the enclosed media to communicate to one another, to disclose the thought into the commons of human culture. The thought is not a commodity of exchange; it is a state of mind that each can form and hold. Recall the wonderful passage from Montaigne, "On educating children" — Truth and reason are common to all: they no more belong to the man who first put them into works than to him who last did so. It is no more secundum Platonem than secundum me: Plato and I see and understand it the same way. Bees ransack flowers here and flowers there: but then they make their own honey, which is entirely theirs and no longer thyme or marjoram. Similarly the boy will transform his borrowings; he will confound their forms so that the end-product is entirely his; namely, his judgement, the forming of which is the only aim of his toil, his study, and his education. The messages are part of a great intellectual commons, a status recognized in the American Constitution in the rationale it provided for copyright. The medium, until recently, has been a different matter. The materiality of books and similar materials has been such that they must be produced and exchanged as commodities, not only enclosed in libraries, but in law as well. Producing and disseminating books has been costly. Books have bulk, they require large quantities of specially processed paper, along with just the right ink, with each book carefully produced with capital-intensive equipment and significant labor. Once produced the books must be warehoused and then transported to many places at a tangible cost and sold or loaned to readers through special places each requiring a staff. To induce people to create, process, publish, and sell the media for our messages a special form of legal enclosure has been put in force, the right to make and disseminate copies of the particular expression of a message. This has been immensely successful historically in promoting the production and exchange of printed books, thereby counteracting the degradation through overuse incurred by the more limited instances of of the mind at work afforded through hand-copied manuscripts.
It has become an open question whether, or to what degree, this strategy of legal enclosure in the realm of the mind, namely the right to make copies, continues to best serve the human uses of culture and thought as intellectual communication shifts from the basis of print to one of electronics. The economics and material constraints of making electronic copies of words, sounds, and images differs radically from those of material reproduction. Making and distributing printed copies of a text required capital to pay for the significant material and labor it took. Enclosing the text through an exclusive right to make copies of it enabled printers and publishers to make a commodity of the book and to sell it as a sufficient profit to reward their own labors and those of the authors they published. There are other ways to reward authors — teaching positions, grants and fellowships, prizes — which are already in widespread use with work of high cultural value and restricted market value.
An exclusive legal right to make copies in an electronic medium is purely vestigial. One can reproduce the bit pattern constituting the work ad infinitum, incurring negligible incremental costs and no degradation of the products. People anywhere at anytime can open the work from the cloud, storage on the web, or download it to their drive in a pittance of time and at infinitesimal cost. There is no tragedy in an electronic commons: use can be infinite without degradation — that is the radical peculiarity of the electronic environment. Tragedy in the electronic commons arises as we perpetuate in them legal artifices that create fictitious scarcity patterns under which use is accorded to some and withheld from others. Schumpeter's law of creative destruction works on capital as well as labor, and from the moral view obsolete capital may have a lesser claim than the obsolete labor to our sympathy and succor.
We face a historical question, whether strategies of enclosure, that have served reasonably well for several centuries, have become obsolete, and if so, whether people can dislodge them for alternatives that are more inherently egalitarian. Historical changes aggregate from the interplay of real concrete activities in the world, as people start acting in many different contexts with different ends in view, and some principles of action, largely implicit, lead to greater relative success and other tacit principles lose influence. As this happens, some people reflect on what is happening, trying to uncover the principles of relative success, and other search for ways to shore up the effectiveness of established arrangements. I think the operational characteristics of digital electronic media are making a basic shift possible. Through this shift, an era of enclosure is giving way to one of disclosure, not all at once, but through an accelerating spread of discernible exemplars. Software innovators are beginning to prompt recognition that intellectual enclosure is becoming an outworn strategy of cultural management through historical demonstrations that other means to support creative development can be more successful than enclosing the material commodities of traditional media in trade secrets, patents, and over-extended copyrights. Developing such innovative examples is what I mean by the phrase, "disclosing the commons."
Wikipedia has so far been the pre-eminent example of disclosing the commons. Traditional printed encyclopedias were striking examples of enclosure as a technique of print-publication for creating very useful resources that could be sold as valuable commodities to a portion of the population. It required considerable capital to commission extensive content for a high-quality encyclopedia like the Britannica, and even more to edit, produce, and distribute what could only be a big, heavy, costly set of volumes. The Britannica successfully dominated the English language market for quality encyclopedias with successive editions of a comprehensive, authoritative product. Wikipedia destroyed the capacity of print-publishers to enclose encyclopedic knowledge. It did so, overturning in a few years practices that had dominated for several centuries, by disclosing the encyclopedic commons. In it, a diverse community freely generates complex acceptable-use policies and works collaboratively under them to create an encyclopedic resources, freely available to anyone, more convenient to use, of vastly greater scope, and of becoming equivalent, if not superior, in depth and intellectual quality. I want to close my remarks in Toronto by trying to state what sort of shift is taking place in the principles of thought as historical action moves away from enclosure of the commons towards its disclosure. In its deepest sense, the turn away from enclosure, unleashing the power of disclosure, transforms the basic way we perceive the geopolitical world around us. This transformation occurs, not by introducing something novel, something previously never thought of or accounted for in experience. Rather the transformation happens by changing what we take to be primary in geopolitical perception. It makes something formerly primary secondary, and something once secondary primary. We have two ways to describe and think about the world, one as a system of bounded areas and the other as sets of interconnected places. Over the past 500 years or so, historically effective action has relied primarily on thinking informed by the idea of bounded areas, while thinking about the connections between places was secondary. Increasingly, thinking about places and their interconnections has begun to gain primacy in many areas of action — that is the historic transition into which we are entering.
Throughout the modern era, a fundamental strategy for thought and action involved postulating boundaries and working intensively on one or another union of objects within them. This was the era in which the world was staked out with area maps, onto which all sorts of boundaries were projected and acted on as if they were real. It is the era of taking censuses, and developing the detailed representation of populations and their activities through statistical counts and analyses, presented, in a telling phrase, through statistical abstracts. Nation-states developed with their boundaries minutely surveyed. Their sovereign powers — executive, legislative, and judicial — worked creatively to make the populace within their boundaries more and more homogeneous in matters of law, politics, education, language, literature, tastes, morays, and beliefs. Economies took on, more and more, a national cast and economics, especially macroeconomics, increasingly became a study of how diverse statistical aggregates and measures interacted on the national level. Wars became national affairs, declared and fought over boundaries, pitting the massed power of one area against another, with not merely armies, but the whole population mobilized, minorities exterminated, and the contending areas battering each other with every means possible until one or the other bent, then broken in total surrender.
Not all maps are area maps that indicate postulated boundaries and differentiate between what resides within and without. Consulting area maps, geographers can tote up the miles of railway track that lie within Germany at one time or another and compare the German total with that for France or Great Britain and they can make all manner of such statistical comparisons of what lies in this area compared to what lies it that. But the maps of the railroad track that had actually been laid in Germany or in France or anywhere else were not area maps, but place maps, which show a network of connections between different places, intrinsically devoid of any boundaries, except perhaps between seas and land. And the use of place maps is very different from the use of area maps: areas allow the generation and comparison of aggregations; places and their connections allow the management of specific, purposeful interactions.
A good city map, a place map par excellence, only incidentally represents administrative boundaries, and it usually stops, not at legal limits, but wherever the edge of the paper is relative to the scale with which it is representing the places of the city — its monuments, parks, buildings, roads, and other places of human meaning and action. People use the city map to find their way in conducting the myriad interactions that constitute the life of the city. And in daily life we constantly use these city maps and many other place maps — each depicting possibilities of interaction along roads, or plane, train, subway, and bus routes, paths in parks, the schema of a website, component grids in computers, the layout of stores, offices, hospitals, campuses, or museums. All these depict connections between points of interest and facilitate our taking concrete, independent action in the world.
We can best understand the great historic transformation going on about us as one in which thinking about and acting on bounded areas is declining in significance and scope, and thought and action about places and their connections is gaining power and reach. It is a mistake, for instance, to see the post-World War II movement for the unification of Europe primarily as one of substituting more inclusive boundaries for the older, more constraining boundaries of the component nations-states. Instead, the emerging European Union accentuates the interconnections between the different places in Europe, along with the general blurring in consciousness of the actual external boundaries of European inter-connectivity. The boundaries of the EU keep changing as old bounded nation-states enter it, less to become part of a larger, more inclusive state, than to partake in the enhanced interconnections gained by de-emphasizing the prior borders of the component members. As a bounded entity, Europe has become highly malleable. It is best defined, not by area maps, but by networks of transportation and communication, and the movement of workers, students, goods, and tourists along its networked linkages.
In like manner, the whole phenomenon of globalization has arisen, not through the promulgation of new area boundaries, but as the linkages between the diverse places of the world have become denser, more predictable and capacious, able to move persons, ideas, and things from here to there more rapidly, more dependably, and far more cheaply. Globalization as an accentuation of connections between many places creates communities of interest and patterns of activity that challenge the authority of those who control boundaries and the spheres of activity within them. Some of these network-based challenges such as terrorism are deeply destabilizing. Others, such as the global flow of labor, capital, and knowledge, which simply do not conform to established jurisdictions, require creative institutional innovation with respect to environments that are rapidly emergent, poorly described, and ill understood. Future generations will have to develop netsmanship as past ones developed statesmanship.
Networks are displacing areas as the locus of human perception, communication, and action. In the modern era wars were conflicts between areas; now terrorists instead conduct warfare across networks, attacking places — buildings in New York, hotels in Mumbai, trains in Spain, buses in London. Economists still worry about GDP and other aggregate measures, but what really matters are the flows of goods and services between places and persons across the networks of production, information, communication, and transportation that constitute the world economic action. An economy is not a bounded area, but an incredibly complicated network of reciprocal interactions. And we must wonder whether the base of data available to economic thinkers is well suited to understanding and managing those complex flows.
Scholars have habitually defined their fields and differentiated one discipline or subject from the others with the use of area metaphors, intensively mastering what was inside each area and largely ignoring what was outside it. All this and much more has been part and parcel of the principle of enclosure, drawing a boundary around some part of the world and making what lies within it special to some and beyond trespass to others. The principle of establishing mental enclosures has pervaded the world as we experience it and think about. It deeply affects academic norms and procedures, which work to cultivate and enforce specializations, the result of all the intellectual enclosures we have arbitrarily established. But thinking persons are beginning, more and more, to switch from enclosure to disclosure, from the area to the network, a world of interconnected nodes, in making sense of how the human understanding and collective intellect actually function.
Historically, in mapping scientific, artistic, or literary development over time, it takes place (a significant phrase) through interactions between specific persons — scientists, painters, writers — working in particular places and particular times. Thus, in historical life, thought and ideas have actually developed through networks in the intellectual commons, a universe of interconnected places, not diffused in some bounded area. Thought and ideas constitute a system of ideational places in space and time and connections between them, and the apparent reality of a field or area of specialization has been akin to an optical illusion arising essentially because it was easier to content oneself with working in proximity to bulky materials stored in one location rather than another. In reality, thought thrives by attaching ideas to places, putting them into words and attaching the words to something we can place, giving it an address in one form or another — incising it on a prominent stone, printing it in a book that a student can cite and locate in a library and publisher's catalogs, or retrieving it from patterns of bits precisely addressed on discs and networks. The viscosity of old intellectual networks, which gave rise to the illusion of areas, subjects, and fields, is giving way to vast, comprehensive databases in which every item is equidistant to any inquirer, who can work with ease the connection of any item with any other.
In thought and action, people dot the world with innumerable addresses of many, many kinds, and use these places, so defined, to identify connections between them and to guide all our human interactions across the resulting networks. What is the Commons? It is the human use of places and their connections. The Commons may conjure up, as an unexamined image, an apparent area, a picture of some village green, sectored by some paths, or some stretch of land, partly striped into small fields and partly rising into a woods. But what made these seeming areas into an actual Commons was not their existence as a bounded area, but the paths and places on them — here, a broken branch for fire word, there a stand of nut trees; here a plot to be plowed, there a spring for drawing water, and even more the the purposeful persons going first here then there, using the resources they found in measure to their actual, immediate needs.
Places and the connections between them, and the uses to which persons put them, define the Commons, and the Commons, its places and their connections and uses, is inherently open to all, to be exploited according to agreed-upon patterns of acceptable use. Enclosure bounds and closes off a set of places and their potential connections. It asserts possession of the places within the boundary and proprietary control over the connections between them. The pendulum of history has swung to the limit towards enclosure and has begun to swing back towards disclosure. The shift we are experiencing moves away from property towards the commons. Enclosure promulgates boundaries; the commons lays out paths, people going hither and yon to gather, greet, and gossip.
That's about it, John. My talk won't touch on everything in these emails, but it is good to try to get the whole set of ideas out. What cultural democracy really means and whether it is feasible needs a lot more reflection. The same for the relation of networks to the commons. It just occurred to me that most networked forms of communication and transportation are called "common carriers." Interesting aspects of all this keep popping up.
Subject: Enjoy Toronto
Date: July 15, 2009
Interesting stuff. But way too much! When you get back, lets talk about where and how a cultural democracy might really develop. It is hard not to get tangled up in hierarchies.
Have a safe trip.