Stowaway

on 10 November 2008 at about 14:37

On Atavism and Enlightenment

[Cross-posted at CEMP]

As a teacher approaching my 85th birthday, and with my early retirement in 2057 looming, I have decided to reflect on the most important changes that have occurred in my lifetime.

Historically, knowledge was a commodity which had been scarce and tightly controlled. Over the last millenium the control of knowledge was fought over and passed through the hands of the clericy, academia, professions such as medicine, and insititutions such as government agencies and military complexes. All of these insitutions had a vested interest in ensuring that the excluded majority continued to believe that knowledge was difficult, precious and unavailable to all but a privileged few. Just as institutions such as the church extracted a power-base from their control of knowledge, so in the 20th and early 21st centuries, entire industries (such as the industrial-commercial university system) were built on extracting value from marketplaces by controlling (or at least appearing to control) knowledge. The university system, for instance, portrayed expertise and knowledge as something difficult to obtain, and as something useful to professions, in order to continue to be able to sell their services. Neither the purchasers, nor the purveyors of these services (i.e. students and staff) had any interest in, nor gained any advantage from, dispelling these appearances, and so they helped to perpetuate the idea that qualifications such as those sold by universities were signs of expertise and ability. Other parties with vested interests in the continuation of the university system (arms-dealers who utilised the practical applications of classified scientific research, dictionary writers who sold their books and website memberships to knowledge-consumers, etc) also strived to ensure that the status quo was maintained.

In 2001 Wikipedia was launched by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger, with the aim of making all the knowledge in the world freely available to everyone. By 2005 it reached the milestone of 1 million articles; it reached 10 million articles just three more years later. It achieved this phenomenal expansion through a deceptively simple mechanism, which today seems entirely natural and right, but at the time was anathema and inimical to the vested interests of the elite: by allowing anyone to create and contribute to articles. Analysis showed that of Wikipedia users, 90% merely read other people's contributions; 10% made some small contributions; but a remarkable 1% of the users wrote the majority of the content. Well within its first decade, Wikipedia had no substantial areas of human endeavour that were not categorically documented and outlined in its English language articles, and translations into all the globally extant languages were underway. Most importantly, the only requirement in order for anyone to access the information held by Wikipedia was their ability also to access Internet-aware consumer electronics. Effectively within just a couple of decades, the number of people who were able to access knowledge inflated exponentially from the 2% of the earth's population who had the money to attend university to the 40% who had the money to buy an iPhone (may The Jobs be praised).

It is interesting to note - though, I admit, merely a curiosity - that at the time that Wikipedia was still in its ascendancy, there was some controversy over its merits. It may be hard for us to imagine today, though some of us are old enough to recall, that in the early decades BW (before Wikipedia), people still adhered to doctrines which would appear at best backwards to us today. The remarkable 1% of Wikipedians who contributed most were criticised as being power-mad and arbitrary, instead of being congratulated for their enormous altruism and gift to the world. Even Wikipedians themsleves were, for a while, obsessed with finding 'citations', though thankfully this rudimentary atavism to primitive practices was soon overcome. Those who we might think of as prophets who foresaw such days as ours were taken up by small numbers of revolutionaries, but were otherwise neglected; Michel Foucault and Richard Rorty (may their memories abide with The Jobs) are only the most obvious examples of those who proclaimed a message of hope, but whose message was overlooked or declaimed as 'relativism'. So-called 'correspondence theories of truth' (where, strange as it may seem, some sort of 'truthful' external reality can somehow be faithfully and accurately described using human language) still held sway - indeed such theories were absolutely crucial to those vested interests who wished to ensure that their control over knowledge was not threatened. In such a context it can be understood why barbaric practices were common in universities: students were often banned from citing Wikipedia, and those who submitted work which remained faithful to its sources were often disqualified on grounds which were, at the time, described as 'plagiarism'. Today we exalt such practices as 'no-brainers'. For those of us who have copy-and-paste embedded into our ways of working with the iPinch (may The Jobs be praised), such old prejudices must all seem entirely perplexing, and yet the strangeness of our history is no barrier to the lessons it may teach us.

The revolutionary development of Wikipedia cannot be overstated, and it is clear that it has had an enormous impact on the teaching profession and the way it conducts itself. There are the obvious and trivial things which have changed, of course: students were once expected to 'acquire' knowledge, whereas now all the information in the world is available at the squeeze of an iTouch (may The Jobs be praised); as a teacher I was once expected to 'use' knowledge where now, as we all know, a teacher's most important skill is their ability to communicate with and support learners; and of course, research was once thought to be about 'discovering truth', where now we realise that there is no such thing as 'truth' and our business is to create knowledge and shape the reality around us. These things, as I say are obvious and trivial. Far more profound are the changes which can be observed in our social realm. As soon as the majority realised that knowledge was not a commodity, and its scarcity was transformed into ubiquity, those parasitic institutions which had thrived on the control of knowledge disappeared. Universities closed within a few years, and notions of expertise and 'qualifications' became objects of derision. Arms-manufacturers and other organisations which gained from secrecy, competitive advantage and aggressive behaviour, such as govenments and nation states, all quickly collapsed.

Most gratifying of all, of course, was the new way in which society as a whole came to view its various members. People quickly realised that since truth could change at any given time, just by editing a Wikipedia page, all the old systems of using knowledge were utterly unreliable.
Instead of relying on ossified and codified information - whether that information was in outdated books, dictionaries and encyclopedias, or whether it was flashing briefly across an iBall (may The Jobs be praised) before being altered by a Wikipedia editor - society rather turned to its most experienced members for advice and wisdom. Where once society had simply turned its back on its elderly, and allowed them to decay into decrepitude, subsisting on tiny pensions and freezing in their minimally-heated seaside hovels, today we rightly look after our elderly population. After all, when you can no longer tell what is true, what is false, and what is just Wikied, where else can you go for help and guidance, but to those who have the wisdom of experience?

The world in which I retire is of course very much changed from the world in which I grew up. After all a world which relies on written words available to only an elite few is bound to be as atomised and fragmented as was that world at the end of the 20th century. Today our need to rely on each other for support, guidance, wisdom and experience has revitalised us and made us rediscover the value of community. For the privilege of being a member of such a community, I thank and praise The Jobs, and may his Apple be with you all.

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  • Small Print

    Joe Flintham 2000 - 2015

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