invisible college turns digital

just discovered a recent call by Robert Darnton to create a National Digital Library, published  in the New York Review of Books. This question is indeed “of vital importance for the cultural life of the country”, as its content should be freely and easily accessible for the general public (or, actually, anyone on the Web? would be most strange if we interpreted Jefferson’s “common property of mankind” as common property of a nation).

I view this as extremely significant when a leading scholar, himself very comfortable in the ivory tower, makes a public call for open-sourcing knowledge, and not just that in public domain. I find ‘common property of mankind’ a far more appealing message than any so-called copyright law. After all, the plea of the FOSS community is no more than re-igniting the Jeffersonian “receives light without darkening me” argument. “Despotism and priestcraft”, mentioned as the prime enemies of freedom of the print, have not vanished and are still firmly rooted everywhere, be it Iranian censorship or the elitism of  those striving for superprofits.

I have often heard complaints from my colleagues in Russia that humanities are rendered unnecessary at the business-minded university. With full understanding of the difference between the rotten tub of Russian academe, driven by ignorant bureaucracy snubbing anyone not in oil business, and Western institutions, there is some true ring in university capitulating to the corporate model too easily. At times it seems to me that a “wiki-ized university” as described by David Staley can bring back some of the collegiality and free-form of the earlier university model, with an obvious post-scarcity flavor.

Like never before, critical thinking in the humanities can help people anatomize the whole fabric of society (pardon the early modern wording) and make, finally, a big leap towards a fairer and kinder world, let alone a more technosavvy one. There is no lack of goodwill in people who are locked inside the academe under the double pressure of red tape and the scholarship’s own geekness. All the years of post-structuralist struggle, combined with the powerful democratic appeal of modern digital technologies can now visualize the invisible college. Sure it sounds high-pitched, but it’s probably an understatement, given the great prospect of the coming change.

An alliance between academics and knowledge technologists will bring about this change much faster.   I was always amazed by how close Samuel Hartlib was to the idea of Wikipedia in his “Office of address”. That time, the idea stood no chance as the required amount of work was too big. We are now again at the point where summarization and classification of knowledge seems necessary (in the plural now, and folksonomically). Without that, the future paradigms may never actually materialize.

About beggingscholar

I am a scholar of Early Modern English literature and culture, teaching quite a number of English-related subjects at Kazan University, Russia. I am mainly interested in the formation of the Early Modern public sphere, scandals, subversion, non-literary discourses in literature and other forms of destructive creation.
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