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Chapter 11. Our Moment

We have to convene more regular conversations, publish more systematic financial and legal analyses, produce more frequent programming, curate more substantial exhibitions, and teach more detailed courses about restoring our control over the information economy.

Published onFeb 23, 2021
Chapter 11. Our Moment

We have to convene more regular conversations, publish more systematic financial and legal analyses, produce more frequent programming, curate more substantial exhibitions, and teach more detailed courses—all about the ways in which we might restore control over the information economy we have been so busily victimized by until today.

At MIT we have convened a working group on open (Open 2020, as we’ve called it), to advance the discussion points herein and the future of knowledge and open learning—inviting visionary stakeholders from throughout the university and experts and creative advocates from outside the institute, inviting in funders and underwriters and other strategic partners. The people we are inviting and assembling—from Wikipedia and the Wikimedia Foundation; from the Internet Archive, Creative Commons, the Public Broadcasting Service, and National Public Radio; legal experts on rights, including free speech and copyright; historians of education and media; librarians, publishers, museum curators, technologists—are like a Constituent Assembly or a Continental Congress, but even more like a freely assembled Rebel Alliance, a nonprofit Sanhedrin of activists and teachers who together (with you) are leading us out of this mess as stakeholders in the future of the non-neoliberal web.1 Another new MIT-originated initiative is the Knowledge Futures Group, established in 2019 to address precisely these issues of public control over publishing and search.2

So much of what is fascinating on the web is produced by us, but somehow it is owned or being run—published, sold, licensed, rented out, agented—by others. We in this sector operate some of the best business schools in the world, so why do we not have our own McKinsey Group, one that could study the fish soup of a financial ecosystem that is scholarly publishing and university librarianship and information science and turn it back into its original aquarium? We have some of the best and most accomplished graduates out there, so why do we not have our own advertising agency, equipped to sell access and time on our digital platforms to a short client list of the companies whose interests could conceivably align with ours? Or our own lobbying group—based in Washington and state capitols, to campaign for better decisions about the issues that affect us and our world so deeply? Or our own legal and business advocacy group, which could—more effectively than the Association of American Universities or American Association of University Professors, the American Alliance of Museums, the Society of American Archivists or Association of Moving Image Archivists, America’s Public Television Stations, the advocacy workers we all hire, the agents and representatives we enlist, the labor unions and other collectives that have, basically, missed the forest for the trees—argue for our rights,3 and maybe one day pull off actions the equal of a Pullman Strike to bring more awareness to the systemic problems we face as a sector and thus as a nation?4

Who should be able to say, even a bit, that they own our knowledge? To have some kind of metaphorical purchase on it is fine. To have rights to control some of it, even exclusive rights, for a time—okay. But to own it? Outright? And ostensibly in perpetuity?

No.

Efforts are under way, especially now in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, to establish a so-called public sphere—or “public space”—for public-service and educational content. Visionaries at cultural and educational institutions and in journalism and related fields are now joining cutting-edge leaders in audiovisual production, so we may actually be getting somewhere. Indeed, the pandemic has brought forth collaborative projects of the sort that true public service broadcasting was founded for—projects involving television and radio, museums, universities, hospitals now, concert halls, and schools: the entire knowledge industry, and much of the culture sector. Here is the BBC:

Our core role is to bring trusted news and information to audiences in the UK and around the world in a fast-moving situation, and counter confusion and misinformation.

We will help people in the UK deal with the impact of the crisis on their own lives, by providing advice, education and support.

We will keep people entertained, providing laughter, escapism, companionship, shared experiences and a sense of connection to the outside world.

At a time when British culture is having to close its doors, the BBC [. . .] can give British culture an audience that can’t be there in person. We propose to run an essential arts and culture service—Culture in Quarantine—that will keep the Arts alive in people’s homes [. . .]

This arts and culture service will include guides to shuttered exhibitions or permanent collections in museums and galleries; performances from world-class musicians and comedians; new plays created especially for broadcast featuring exceptional talent; the experience of book festivals with privileged access to authors and great ideas switched online; and quarantine diaries from creative visionaries. We will also be offering jewels from the archive, ensuring that brand new theatre and dance performances will join with modern classics to create a repertory theatre of broadcast.5

The great Czech writer and playwright and later president of Czechoslovakia, Václav Havel, next to Nelson Mandela perhaps our only modern philosopher-king, spoke of the possibility that certain elements of our human experience “do not—without our really being aware of it—point somewhere further, beyond their apparent limits” and whether “right here, in our everyday lives” “certain challenges are not already encoded, quietly waiting for the moment when they will be read and grasped.” The real question, he maintained, “is whether the ‘brighter future’ is really always so distant”:

What if, on the contrary, it has been here for a long time already, and only our blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us, and kept us from developing it?6

But—we need more. The forces that line up to shut down these kinds of experiments—often led by rightsholders seeking to monetize content before everything is available online—are strong: years ago, they put the kibosh on an early, majestic experiment at the BBC in 2005, and they have been busy before and since. Consortial efforts are required because the world’s strongest vested interests—whether Elsevier, Wiley, Disney, Sony, Warner, or any of a hundred others—are commercializing our knowledge, locking it away from us, exerting a powerful counterforce upon its natural, Newtonian trajectory into the Commons. That force lasts longer than the lifetime of single human advocates, and when these nefarious and financially powerful corporations expand and merge and acquire one another, they benefit by receiving not only the assets and revenue of the companies they buy but the accrued man-days of their institutional existences, their connections, their collective suppression strategies—the momentum behind which is considerable. When church and state working together (the church being the publisher, or JSTOR, of its day), neutralize or eliminate our greatest advocates and heroes, the only way we can combat their power is by aggressive and collective action. We have to launch a consortial effort to take back the public broadcasting efforts we seem to have abandoned, writ large, as a global society—a consortial effort to establish, produce, coprogram a new web network, perhaps called “public sphere broadcasting”?7 One devoted to the public weal—rather than to the bottom line.

We might (this means: we should) therefore want to start (this means we should start right away) a new national, even international, commission of experts from science, media, technology, and the arts to explore the proper role for the university and sister knowledge institutions in our modern and broken information ecosystem. This would be an echo of the Carnegie Commission on educational broadcasting that MIT’s former president James Rhyne Killian called for and chaired in the 1960s. Though it was bold, and produced a report full of passion, effectively paving the way for our current system of public broadcasting, the Carnegie Commission operated in a world that could not have imagined our current epistemic crisis. On the other hand, its members could not have imagined the possibilities that the networked world presents to us today. Visionaries almost a decade ago called for the great global meta-university—a great global meta-archive of knowledge—as well. MIT’s former president Charles Vest spoke of “a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced. . . . The meta-university will enable, not replace, residential campuses, especially in wealthier regions. It will bring cost efficiencies to institutions through the shared development of educational materials. It will be adaptive, not prescriptive. It will serve teachers and learners in both structured and informal contexts. It will speed the propagation of high-quality education and scholarship. It will build bridges across cultures and political boundaries. It will be particularly important to the developing world.”8

We have to start consciously collaborating with one another and producing—but immediately—for this new knowledge network. Signs of what is possible are evident everywhere. The Internet Archive, always a host and sponsor of such coproductions, is working with Wikipedia now, digitizing books so that links to sources in Wikipedia link all the way through to the books themselves—and render up images and text on the cited pages. This takes the Encyclopédie’s vision and ambition to a whole new level. The reference link to a biography by Taylor Branch at the bottom of a Wikipedia article on Martin Luther King, Jr. (the Wikipedia article [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Luther_King_Jr.] is the first link to surface on a Google search), now hotlinks to the readable online book at https://archive.org/details/atcanaansedgeame00bran. There is magic happening here, under our eyes. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Washington—“private, nonprofit institutions,” as they describe themselves, “that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine,” now host two-day Wikipedia edit-a-thons on nothing less important than climate change. “For more than four decades, the National Academies have helped to establish climate change as a national issue through their consensus study reports,” the academies tells us. “Their work has resolved long-standing questions about the science, defined the urgency for understanding the short- and long-term impacts of climate change, and charted ways in which we can prepare for and respond to climate change.” To address the pandemic and global disinformation crisis, the World Health Organization has begun to cooperate, at long last, with Wikipedia. But now—after all these decades—now is the time to get into the production business: and in fact, the production-of-networked-knowledge business.9

By producing for the network we will make it happen and grow. Today all these knowledge institutions we have are involved in education—physical, online, public, K-8, university level, high school, advanced, you name it. But are we also in the health care business? The banking business? Education policy? Foreign policy? Climate change?

You bet we are.

We are everywhere the Monsterverse is.

Is race discrimination our topic? Gender discrimination? Abortion? Gun laws? Climate Change? Tax reform?10

You bet they are. And until such time as there is a real opportunity for regulations over these network news sources and platforms that purvey blatant falsehoods, it’s not our job to be defending against misinformation, backed up in a crush like peewee soccer players against our own goal. It’s our job instead to be playing offense, and thus to be publishing—as universities, museums, libraries, archives—as much true information, verifiable narrative, research, and data as possible, and in methods that facilitate their freest distribution and redistribution. 

The real question is, how great will the forces against progress be? And how violent the reaction to a concerted effort by leaders in our movement—and only the brave need apply—to reclaim our rights, reinsure and reinforce the Commons, establish a true and self-aware knowledge network, run our archive, and seize our moment? The battle over the control of knowledge is the defining struggle of our time. My guess is that it will be sizable.

When the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I work now, was first established, our country was riven by violent conflict over power and freedom. The very day, in fact—April 10, 1861—that the Massachusetts Commonwealth granted the founding members of the Association of Industrial Art and Science the institute’s formal charter, Brigadier General Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, commander of the Provisional Army in Charleston, was busy, on behalf of the new Confederacy—seven of our thirty-four states had already seceded, and four more would follow—demanding the surrender of a US Union garrison stationed off the South Carolina coast. The Union commander, Robert Anderson, who had been an instructor of Beauregard’s at West Point, refused to lay down Union arms, and on April 12—two days into MIT’s existence—Beauregard’s unit started shelling Fort Sumter. It was a student shelling a teacher; but it was also the start of the Civil War.11

It would be four years before the war would end, and four years before MIT would recruit its first students and hold its first classes. But, born in that crucible, that violent Civil War spring, MIT kept a remarkably steady hand at the helm of knowledge sharing and public engagement, steering its own institution and leading minds around the globe toward solving the world’s largest problems. The original consortium that set up the institute—William Barton Rogers and his Back Bay Brahmins (James M. Beebe, E. S. Tobey, S. H. Gookin, E. B. Bigelow, M. D. Ross, various Daltons, Dupees, and Cabots)—believed, uniquely then and perhaps even now among institutions of higher learning, that “professional competence” would best be “fostered by coupling teaching and research,” that is, by “focusing attention on real-world problems.”12 But they also intended for the educational programs they designed, as they wrote to each other at the time, “to fall within the reach of a large number whom the scantiness of time, means, and opportunity, would exclude from the great seats of classical and scientific education in the Commonwealth.”13 In so doing, the establishment also honored and echoed the sentiments of John Lowell and his Boston Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge.

One hundred and sixty years later, the institute remains committed in its very mission statement to “generating, disseminating, and preserving knowledge” and to “working with others to bring this knowledge to bear on the world’s great challenges.”14 MIT has become a “world-class educational institution”; and it avers that “teaching and research—with relevance to the practical world and transforming society for the better as guiding principles—continue to be its primary purpose.”15 Yet with equal tenacity many of the overarching problems facing the institute and the country in the 1860s—as Civil War historian Eric Foner lists them: “the enduring legacy of slavery, the nature of presidential leadership, the relationship between morality and politics, and the definition of American nationality and citizenship”16—remain eerily familiar, as relevant, as unsolved, as urgent now as they were then.

Addressing collective action in the face of the direst challenges of the age will not allow us to sit still or be silent. Speaking of the Constitution, historian David Waldstreicher reminds us that “with respect to slavery, the federalists had fashioned a silence, not a consensus—or at most a consensus to be silent.”17 We’ve seen what happened afterwards. Such silence in the face of power is never good, nor is inaction in the face of aggression. We have witnessed, in the years after Trump’s election fired up the incubators and greenhouses for all this violence and hate, an upsurge in vitriol like nobody’s business. In the words of the astute critic James Poniewozik, that was what the election of Donald Trump was designed to do. “Trump got elected,” Poniewozik writes. “But TV became president.” And “the only job [Trump] was truly elected to do” was “monitoring, stoking, and embodying the cultural anger machine.”18

That anger and the concomitant violence we see has been in power. It may be that people who have experience wielding power unjustly jump to guilt, and that guilt makes them violent. One of the greatest historians of the South, C. Vann Woodward, speaks of the Civil War South as having “writhed in the torments of its own conscience until it plunged into catastrophe to escape.”19 And it was tormented—according to Woodward—by the power that its people wielded over others.

Now, what may ensue in the years ahead may be a polite little scuffle. As the young Confederate Army mustered its strength to fire that spring, its leaders sent this note from the Charleston harbor to the Union garrison stationed offshore:

April 12, 1861 – 3.20 a.m.

FORT SUMTER, S.C.,

SIR: By authority of Brigadier-General Beauregard, commanding the Provisional Forces of the Confederate States, we have the honor to notify you that he will open the fire of his batteries on Fort Sumter in one hour from this time.

We have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servants,

JAMES CHESTNUT, JR.

Aide-de-Camp

STEPHEN D. LEE

Aide-de-Camp20

But, on the other hand, it could be violent. It could be violent like the fatal fights over the television towers in Romania, Lithuania, and Russia, where dozens died in the struggle for screen control.21 It equally could be the more American story of Edmund Ruffin, who joined the Palmetto Guards of Charleston, as historian John Hope Franklin has written, “and assumed the duties of a regular recruit.” The company selected him to fire the first shot on Sumter, and he was delighted. When Ruffin pulled the lanyard on the sixty-four-pound columbiad at 4:30 in the morning of April 12, 1861, he did what thousands of Southerners were willing to do. They, like Ruffin, had nothing more to say. They were ready to fight, even if on the wrong side, and this is what they would do.22

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