(The first in what will undoubtedly be a bunch of posts to do with my discourse & technology course this semester)
(beware of messy polemic and parenthetical asides)
One of the texts for my summer PhD course (The Rhetoric of Personal Agency) is David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous (a book I’d highly recommend even without having finished it yet). His thesis has basically to do with how the nature of how humans know is changing as we remove the limitations of the physical world by moving into the digital (mostly through social networking and collaborative knowledge-creating). The basic argument seems to be that by allowing information to be truly miscellaneous and in many “places” at once, the individual knower has a great deal more freedom to know –as well as a responsibility to know actively. (The book’s certainly a great deal more complex than that, but it’s the basic gist as I can summarize it thus far.)
This has gotten me thinking about a great many things, most of them to do with academia’s continued resistance to (if you’ll pardon the generic) Web 2.0: the social, collaborative, semantic, accessible, interactive, collectivist, rhetorical, networked, (insert appropriate adjective here) Web.
One section that I marked with a pink sticky note (the “Blog on This” marker) is in his chapter on social knowing, authority, and credibility. Because of the limitations of the physical (i.e. capital and resources needed to create, maintain, and gatekeep expensive print texts that are assumed to be of value to readers), credibility has a great deal to do with the credentials and “expertise” of the author—what school he comes from, what people he knows, what things he’s done, etcetera. For sites like Wikipedia, credibility comes not from credentials (most authors are anonymous, most editors are pseudonymous), but from a history of established, quality contributions to the site. If you write/edit good articles that don’t get disputed a great deal, that is the basis of your credibility.
Beyond that, Weinberger writes, successful Wikipedia authors “have to know how to play well with others.” In the often contentious world of facts and ideas, these authors need to be able to take edits, argue for their original positions, and perform a great deal of negotiation. This is how Wikipedia’s vaunted goal of neutrality can be reached, and this (along with the credibility of authors) is one example of how social knowledge works.
To bring it back to academia: I think that in asking the academic community to embrace the digital (communities, technologies, information, publishing and media, etcetera), what we’re mostly asking them to do is engage with an ethos that is (ironically, I think) alien to them. One of the great themes of the university is “knowledge is power”—we hold it sacrosanct; at the same time, many academics feel that social knowledge (an important element or principal of our rhetoric of personal agency) somehow represents the WORST of what old Al Pope was talking about when he wrote that “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”
Every time I read or think about the kind of paradigm shift in knowledge-making that Weinberger’s talking about, I can’t help but think of academics I’ve know who would number themselves among the Ludd-est of Luddites. Can we articulate such a rhetoric to a people who honestly think that e-books (and I quote) “aren’t real books”? Or should we even try? I think that an accessible, engaging rhetoric is absolutely possible and even moreso, an accessible, engaging rhetoric is pivotal for bringing academia into the 21st century (okay, I’m getting off onto my diss. area here, I think…)
Let’s drink deep from the Pierian spring, but let’s recognize that perhaps that spring isn’t ONLY lodged among the stacks on the third floor. Melvil Dewey got us that far when he invented his Decimal System to democratize library storage and access, but the humanities have been stuck there a little too long… Needless to say, the implications are wide-reaching and inspiring. We’re really talking about a fundamental shift in understanding of how we know things, and who distributes that knowledge. It’s a question of ethos.
<help>So, how do we get that ethos across?</help>