The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge: Part 3

Edi­tor’s Note: MIT Open Learning’s Peter B. Kauf­man has just pub­lished The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge, a book that takes a his­tor­i­cal look at the pow­er­ful forces that have pur­pose­ly crip­pled our efforts to share knowl­edge wide­ly and freely. His new work also maps out what we can do about it. Gen­er­ous­ly, Peter has made his book avail­able through Open Cul­ture by pub­lish­ing three short essays along with links to the cor­re­spond­ing freely licensed sec­tions of his book. Today, you can read his third essay “The Repub­lic of Images” (below). Find his first essay, “The Mon­ster­verse” here, his sec­ond essay “On Wikipedia, the Ency­clopédie, and the Ver­i­fi­a­bil­i­ty of Infor­ma­tion” here, and pur­chase the entire book online.

In Novem­ber 1965, after some hondling between the Carnegie Cor­po­ra­tion and the Ford Foun­da­tion, a senior exec­u­tive from Carnegie called for­mer pres­i­dent of MIT James Kil­lian with an invi­ta­tion. Would Kil­lian be inter­est­ed in assem­bling a com­mis­sion to study edu­ca­tion­al tele­vi­sion with an eye toward strength­en­ing the Amer­i­can sys­tem of learn­ing on screen, and could he start right away? Kil­lian jumped; a com­mis­sion was formed; and two years, eight meet­ings, 225 inter­views, and 92 site vis­its lat­er, the Carnegie Commission’s report comes out, a bill gets writ­ten, the bill becomes law, and Pres­i­dent John­son is sign­ing the 1967 Pub­lic Tele­vi­sion Act to cre­ate pub­lic tele­vi­sion and radio.

At the sign­ing cer­e­mo­ny, John­son said, “Today, we reded­i­cate a part of the air­waves – which belong to all the peo­ple – and we ded­i­cate them for the enlight­en­ment of all the peo­ple. We must con­sid­er,” he said, “new ways to build a great net­work for knowl­edge – not just a broad­cast sys­tem, but one that employs every means of send­ing and stor­ing infor­ma­tion that the indi­vid­ual can use.”

Heady stuff.  But it gets even bet­ter:

Think of the lives that this would change:
The stu­dent in a small col­lege could tap the resources of a great uni­ver­si­ty. […]
The coun­try doc­tor get­ting help from a dis­tant lab­o­ra­to­ry or a teach­ing hos­pi­tal;
A schol­ar in Atlanta might draw instant­ly on a library in New York;
A famous teacher could reach with ideas and inspi­ra­tions into some far-off class­room, so that no child need be neglect­ed.
Even­tu­al­ly, I think this elec­tron­ic knowl­edge bank could be as valu­able as the Fed­er­al Reserve Bank.
And such a sys­tem could involve oth­er nations, too – it could involve them in a part­ner­ship to share knowl­edge and to thus enrich all mankind.
A wild and vision­ary idea? Not at all. Yesterday’s strangest dreams are today’s head­lines and change is get­ting swifter every moment.
I have already asked my advis­ers to begin to explore the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a net­work for knowl­edge – and then to draw up a sug­gest­ed blue­print for it.

The sys­tem he was sign­ing into law, John­son said, “will be free, and it will be inde­pen­dent – and it will belong to all of our peo­ple.”

A new net­work for knowl­edge.


Fifty years lat­er, total­ly (seem­ing­ly) unre­lat­ed, then MIT pres­i­dent Charles Vest went on to speak of some­thing else, some­thing that became MIT Open Course­ware.  Togeth­er with new foun­da­tions – this time the Hewlett Foun­da­tion and the Mel­lon Foun­da­tion led the way – Vest envi­sioned “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:”

A meta-uni­ver­si­ty that will enable, not replace, res­i­den­tial cam­pus­es, that will bring cost effi­cien­cies to insti­tu­tions through the shared devel­op­ment of edu­ca­tion­al mate­ri­als. That 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. And it will be par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant to the devel­op­ing world.

Today, in our time of severe truth decay, our great epis­temic cri­sis, it might be time again to envi­sion anoth­er inter­ven­tion, for­ma­tive and trans­for­ma­tion­al as the estab­lish­ment of pub­lic broad­cast­ing, imag­i­na­tive and dar­ing as the launch of open course­ware and the open edu­ca­tion move­ment.  Indeed, some­thing as breath­tak­ing as the events above, and their own vital for­bear over a cen­tu­ry ago – the found­ing of a net­work of pub­lic libraries across Amer­i­ca and oth­er parts of the world (which also hap­pened with Andrew Carnegie’s finan­cial sup­port).

The orig­i­nal Enlight­en­ment brought us Newton’s physics, Rousseau’s polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy, Linnaeus’s tax­onomies, Montesquieu’s laws, the Dec­la­ra­tion of Inde­pen­dence, the Dec­la­ra­tion of the Rights of Man – it was the Age of Rea­son.  Its founders – as we not­ed in [Parts 1 and II on] Open Cul­ture – com­prised between them­selves what became known as the great Repub­lic of Let­ters.  They were all men, though; and they all were white; while they had access to their own means and to the mean of media pro­duc­tion, and they deliv­ered new sys­tems of think­ing much of the mod­ern world is based on today, their cir­cles were lim­it­ed; their imag­i­na­tions were not our imag­i­na­tions.

Today we have a chance to do more – to take advan­tage of the cul­tures and com­mu­ni­ties that have arisen in the cen­turies and from the strug­gles since that time, to launch a new Enlight­en­ment, and to real­ize per­haps in bold­er and more secure ways this new net­work for knowl­edge.  Video, more than text now, has tak­en over the inter­net; video is a new key to our net­worked world. The com­pa­ny Cis­co Sys­tems – which makes many of the devices that con­nect us – deploys a fore­cast­ing tool it calls the Visu­al Net­work­ing Index (VNI). The lat­est VNI tells us that there were 3.4 bil­lion Inter­net users on the plan­et in 2017, almost half of the planet’s cur­rent pop­u­la­tion of 7.7 bil­lion peo­ple. By 2022, there will be 4.8 bil­lion Inter­net users: 60 per­cent of the plan­et, and more peo­ple in the world will be con­nect­ed to the Inter­net than not. By 2022, more than 28 bil­lion “devices and con­nec­tions” will be online. And – here’s the kick­er – video will make up 82 per­cent of glob­al Inter­net traf­fic. Video is dom­i­nant already. Dur­ing peak evening hours in the Amer­i­c­as, Net­flix can account for as much as 40 per­cent of down­stream Inter­net traf­fic, and Net­flix – Net­flix alone – con­sti­tutes 15 per­cent of Inter­net traf­fic world­wide. All this fore­cast­ing was com­plet­ed before the pan­dem­ic; before 125 mil­lion cas­es of Coro­na virus; before 3 mil­lion deaths world­wide; before the explo­sion of Zoom.

We are liv­ing in a video age. What will be our next media inter­ven­tion?  How do knowl­edge insti­tu­tions secure their deserved­ly cen­tral place in search and on the web?  We need to look over our rights vis-à-vis the gov­ern­ment and the giant com­pa­nies that increas­ing­ly con­trol our Inter­net; we need to look at the grow­ing pow­er we have to con­tribute to access to knowl­edge and share our wealth espe­cial­ly in the online Com­mons; we need to make sure that the pub­lic record, espe­cial­ly video (and espe­cial­ly video of all the lies and crimes, and of all the out­ra­geous false­hoods lead­ers cir­cu­late about COVID) is all archived and pre­served. We need to strength­en how much of the net­work we own and con­trol.

What’s impor­tant is that we have begun to reach toward the point where there is equi­ty in the lead­er­ship of our knowl­edge insti­tu­tions. No longer are white men and only white men in charge of the Library of Con­gress, for exam­ple, or the Smith­son­ian Insti­tu­tion, or, and thus by exten­sion, of our new Enlight­en­ment. New and diverse study and action groups are being formed specif­i­cal­ly to address our infor­ma­tion dis­or­der. But many more of our lead­ing knowl­edge insti­tu­tions – and, crit­i­cal­ly, foun­da­tions and fund­ing agen­cies again – need to lead this work.  This is a 20th-anniver­sary year for MIT Open Course­Ware, for Wikipedia, and for Cre­ative Com­mons; indeed, MIT OCW starts to cel­e­brate its birth­day this month. Many oth­er like-mind­ed pro­gres­sive insti­tu­tions and their sup­port­ers are on the move. That net­work for knowl­edge is com­ing again: this time, our new Enlight­en­ment moment will belong to all of us.

Peter B. Kauf­man works at MIT Open Learn­ing and is the author of The New Enlight­en­ment and the Fight to Free Knowl­edge

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